Archive for the ‘English’ Category
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has released two documents related to its programme of extrajudicial executions: The first was the secret memo that, like the Bush torture memo, was drafted by political appointees provide legal cover for criminal conduct I which the administration wished to engage. The second came in the form of Attorney-General Eric Holder’s letter to Rand Paul (KY-Plutocrat) in response to the latter’s question about the possible use of drones to execute US citizens within the US. The one is a secret get-out-of-jail-free card for internal use, whereas the other is a policy statement for public consumption.
In order to understand what Obama & Co. are telling us, we must read the two documents in tandem.
The secret memo does not deal specifically with the execution of US citizens on US territory. It sets out the basis, such as it is, for the administration’s general claim of the authority to decide who lives and who dies both under the US Constitution (ignoring the fact that no US court has ever even dealt with the issue, let alone supported the administration’s position) and under international law (which the authors accomplish by ignoring what international law says about the use of force and the fact that international law explicitly prohibits extrajudicial executions). There is nothing explicitly asserting the power to carry out these executions on US territory, but neither is there any disclaimer of that power. It assumes that “[any] operation of the sort discussed here would be conducted in a foreign country against a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or its associated forces
In brief, the memo claims that US citizens can be executed without charge or trial when an “informed high-level official” (no rank or title is specified) believes that the person is a “senior operational leader” of al-Qa’ida or unspecified “associated forces”, that an attack by the person in question is “imminent” (more on the administration’s peculiar definition of “imminent” later), and capture is not “feasible” (Memo, p. 1).
As Glenn Greenwald points out, it is important to note at this point that:
[When] this memo refers to “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida”, what it actually means is this: someone whom the President – in total secrecy and with no due process – has accused of being that. Indeed, the memo itself makes this clear, as it baldly states that presidential assassinations are justified when “an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US”.
This is the crucial point: the memo isn’t justifying the due-process-free execution of senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent threat to the US. It is justifying the due-process-free execution of people secretly accused by the president and his underlings, with no due process, of being that. The distinction between (a) government accusations and (b) proof of guilt is central to every free society, by definition, yet this memo – and those who defend Obama’s assassination power – wilfully ignore it.
(emphasis in original)
The “white paper” further notes that there may well be other cases not dealt with in the memo in which US citizens can be executed without charge or trial, stating that:
As stated earlier, this paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render such an operation lawful, nor does it assess what might be required to render a lethal operation against a U.S. citizen lawful in other circumstances. It concludes only that the stated conditions would be sufficient to make lawful a lethal operation in a foreign country directed against a U.S. citizen with the characteristics described above.
(Memo, p. 16)
In other words, the memo sets out just a few of a potentially unlimited number of circumstances in which the US government might claim the power to have a US citizen murdered without charge or trial.
Eric Holder’s letter to Rand Paul, on the other hand, deals quite specifically with the issue of executing citizens without trial on US territory, and was clearly drafted with the media in mind.
Thus, the letter begins by saying that:
As members of this Administration have previously indicated, the U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so.
This, of course, is as far as the dominant media read (or at least reported). I, on the other hand, was immediately put in mind of East German president Walter Ulbricht’s famous 1961 announcement that “there is no intention to build a wall in Berlin”. The construction of the wall was completed within one year thereafter.
“No intention” certainly sounds quite definitive and reassuring, as does the remark (in the next sentence) that:
As a policy matter, moreover, we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat.
Neither of these statements is remotely definitive or reassuring. Holder is a lawyer; he knows how to choose his words carefully. When a lawyer declares that her client has “no intention” of doing something, at most, it means that the client has no current plans to do whatever it is. As for the future: Who can really say?
Holder could have said that extrajudicial executions of US citizens on US territory (whether by drone or other means – Holder is careful to refer only to drones!) were “illegal” or “unconstitutional” (and he would have been quite right). He could have gone even further with a rousing proclamation that the very idea was “anathema to any society calling itself democratic” or even (given sufficient hypocrisy, and I think we can take that for granted) that it would be “immoral and reprehensible” to execute US citizens on US soil without charge or trial.
Instead, all he says is that there is “no intention” of carrying out extrajudicial executions by drones in the US, and that “as a matter of policy”, the Administration “reject” the use of military force where (in their opinion and only their opinion) “law enforcement authorities…provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat.” That is a heavily qualified statement.
Really, Holder could have said anything. What did he ultimately decide on? “No intention”. That alone should suffice to give us pause.
But wait! As Dan Savage might say, “It gets better”.
A few paragraphs later, Holder opines that
It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.
The examples of such “extraordinary circumstances” Holder provides are Pearl Harbour and the 11 September 2001 attacks. However, every state invokes “extraordinary circumstances” to engage in extraordinary crimes.
In this context, it is worth returning to the secret memo in order to understand what the government Holder represents means by this reference to Pearl Harbour or 9/11.
As noted above, the secret memo holds extrajudicial executions of US citizens to be acceptable in the event of an “imminent” attack. “Imminent” is one of those words we have grown accustomed to hearing in the past twelve years, but this appears to have been the first time the government have seen fit to define what it means when they say it.
It is a most peculiar definition indeed.
In everyday parlance, when we speak of an “imminent threat” or the like, we imagine situations such as a loaded gun being pointed at us. This is also, by and large, the sort of “imminent threat” courts in the US and elsewhere generally require for a criminal defendant to validly claim self-defence. Certainly, this is what most people will have taken the government to mean back when they were claiming (despite knowing better) that Iraq was an “imminent threat”.
From the secret execution memo, we learn how wrong we were. That memo explicitly states that the authors, and the government they represent, do not mean “imminent” to mean “imminent” at all. Rather, in the words of the memo, this requires “additional explication”:
[The] condition that an [alleged] operational leader present an “imminent” threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.
With this understand, a high-level official could conclude, for example, that an individual poses an “imminent threat” of violent attack against the United States where he is an [alleged] operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Moreover, where the al-Qa’ida member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member’s involvement in al-Qa’ida’s continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat.
(Memo, p. 8, emphasis supplied)
In other words, there is no need for actual evidence of an imminent attack. It is enough for our “high-level official” to believe that the intended victim might carry out such an attack sometime in the future, even if there is no evidence to support this assumption. Indeed, the memo goes so far as to state that the “imminence” criterion could be met where the “informed, high-level official” is satisfied (in his or her sole and unaccountable discretion!) that the intended victim has engaged in such attacks in the past, or, in a remarkable feat of circularity, in unspecified “activities posing an imminent [!!] threat of violent attack against the United States”, i.e., in circumstances where the “high-level official” does not even have any evidence of participation in past attacks, but merely alleged affiliation with al-Qa’ida or an “associated force”.
In other words, when Obama & Co. say “imminent”, they mean hypothetical.
What, then, does this tell us of Holder’s invocation of “extraordinary circumstances such as PearlHarbour or 9/11? Certainly, nothing particularly reassuring.
Given the administration’s definition of “imminence”, what holder is telling us is that the administration might be willing to start executing US citizens on US soil without charge or trial if they believe there to be a hypothetical possibility of an attack like PearlHarbour or 9/11.
This is hardly an “extraordinary circumstances”. There will always be some hypothetical possibility of an attack like those Holder mentions, certainly as long as the US keeps attacking, invading, occupying, and carrying out military coups in other people’s countries.
Holder is thus “reassuring” us that the administration he represents will murder anyone they want, when- and wherever they want, as long as they are convinced that they really want to do it.
I feel safer already.
Much has been made in this context of the possibility of drone strikes within the US. Indeed, as noted above, the correspondence between Paul and Holder is explicitly about executions by drones within the US. This, unlike the executions themselves, which the government assure us are entirely probable, seems quite unlikely to me.
In Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq (etc., etc., etc.), the US government can (and do) do whatever they want, and can rely on our “cantankerous press” not to notice. However, if the government were to fire off enough high explosives to take out a city block here at home, that might not play well in Peoria. Even Andrew Sullivan, who supported the US government claiming dictatorial powers before Obama made it cool, might find that a bit excessive. The government want to avoid discussion of these issues, not encourage it.
There is no shortage of more subtle ways of murdering people one wants to get rid of. A quick glance southward, where people have years of experience with US-installed and -supported regimes that claim the right to carry out extrajudicial executions, shows that there is generally a marked preference for more quiet murders that can’t be clearly attributed to the dictator in question.
In Chile, for example, Pinochet preferred to simply make people “disappear” by abducting them to some secret torture facility, killing them there, denying ever having arrested the victim, and burying them in secret (or dumping them into the Pacific Ocean from helicopters). Between the NDAA – authorising arbitrary, indefinite, incommunicado abduction of anyone the executive branch wants to lock up – and the execution memo, there is certainly no reason to rule out the ever-popular “disappearance” method.
If people started asking questions, Pinochet arranged, with the help of his allies in the press, to claim that the “extremists” in question had killed each other, or that they had been killed in a shootout with the police. When union leader Tucapel Jiménez was murdered, the CNI (secret police) made it look like a robbery, and even had an unemployed alcoholic by the name of Juan Alegría commit “suicide” after writing out a false confession to Jimenez’ murder. Former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, who became a prominent opponent of the dictatorship in the 1980s, was dispatched with weaponised botulism whilst in hospital for routine surgery. “Natural causes”. This practice of staging evidence to give the dictatorship deniability is known as montaje (“montage”).
If and when this or a future government should find the circumstances sufficiently “extraordinary”, it is much more likely that they will resort to “disappearances” and montajes than to taking out entire neighbourhoods with drone bombs. Ask Fred Hampton.
Things like this are, needless to say, profoundly terrifying to talk about. That’s the whole idea.
Most of the discussion of the US government’s attacks on human rights at home has been dedicated to establishing that those attacks are real, despite the official denials and rationalisations. As such, anyone who has paid attention – and is not in profound denial – knows that, over the past decade or so, the US government has put in place as official policy all of the emblematic crimes – torture, “disappearance”, and now extrajudicial executions – that characterised terror states like Chile under Pinochet or Guatemala under Ríos Montt.
That is scary shit, and is proof that we – especially those of us who are Muslim, or have Muslim-sounding names, or are active in one way or another against war and imperialism and the capitalist system they rode in on – are living in very dangerous times.
However, the truth alone does not necessarily set you free; often enough, it is equally capable of terrifying you into inaction.
Virtually all of what I’ve read has focussed on establishing the facts, but neglected the most important question of all, the question that really can begin to set us free: What do we do about it?
So far, the main approach has been to challenge at least some of these egregious human rights violations in court. In itself, this is not a bad start, but we need to break away from the illusions we learnt in school: The courts and the highly overrated Constitution will not protect us from oppression. Free speech was in the Constitution for a century and a half before we had anything that could seriously be called freedom of speech in this country. The Equal Protection Clause didn’t end Jim Crow. And even a federal court order has not always been enough to secure the freedom of the abductees illegally held in the Guantánamo concentration camp.
More often than not, going to court makes us feel like we are taking action, when in fact we are just spinning our wheels.
We need to do more. This is too serious to be left up to the judges.
What, then, can we do?
One thing we need to do is to learn how to operate in this “New Normal”, and fast. In every country that has been subjected to the rule of terror states like those of Pinochet or Ríos Montt (or Videla in Argentina, or D’Aubuisson & Co. in El Salvador, or the Lobo dictatorship in Honduras today), there have been courageous, ordinary people who organised to expose the crimes of the dictatorships, provide support to victims and their families, provide safe havens to those in danger, and fight back.
Latin America – thanks to the Good Neighbour in the north – is full of people with years of knowledge and experience in circumstances more “extraordinary” than those we currently face (but, as a guest character on ER once said, “Every new day brings its own surprises.”) We need to be learning from those people – they know a lot more about this than we do, because they’ve seen it before.
Another good start would be to drop this facile distinction – imposed by the law and dominant in the culture – between those who have US passports and those who do not, between those whose papers are in order, and those without papers, and between “us over here” and “them over there”. We have many more interests in common with undocumented workers from Nicaragua, villagers in Pakistan, and Palestinian peasants than we will ever have in common with our all-American ruling class.
In this series of attacks on fundamental human rights at home and abroad, the ruling class has made it clear that the whole world is their battlefield, and we are all – citizen or not, “over here” or “over there” – potential enemies. We need to act accordingly and struggle together.
 It is common in the media and in official pronouncements to hear this practice described as “targeted killing”. However, leading human rights groups, and the US State Department’s own human rights reports, refer to this practice of giving the executive blanket authority to order the murder of persons as “extrajudicial execution”, and I will not euphemise the practice here.
 A distinction I will accept here only reluctantly, and only because the distinction is made in the two documents, and because US law made such distinctions in many contexts even before this latest attack on human rights. I in no way accept its legitimacy.
 The standard of “imminence” required in order for a country to lawfully use or threaten the use of military force in self-defence under international law is even stricter, requiring the actual or imminent attack to be so overwhelming and immediate that there is no time to consider any other option.
In the last two parts of this series, published in this past fall, we met Jon “Yani” Haigh, who injected himself into the Greta Berlin debacle by signing an open letter along with multiple virulent racists and several sockpuppet accounts, that claimed that there was nothing racist going on in the racist troll groups where Greta Berlin found the holocaust denial video that she posted on the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) Twitter account.
Haigh, who lives in Brisbane, Queensland, works with a politically connected Republican lawyer by the name of Kamal Nawash. As discussed in greater detail in the first two parts of the series, Nawash, following a failed run for the Virginia State Assembly, decided to found a group called Free Muslims Coalition Against Terror, an astroturf operation that serves to root out “extremist Muslims” and generally provides an Arab/Muslim fig leaf for repressive US government policies.
These are, to be sure, strange bedfellows for anyone who, like Haigh, claims to be a Palestinian solidarity activist. As we will see in the following, however, they are not the only ones.
In the course of my research for this series, I was made aware that Haigh, with Kamal Nawash and one Rafi Gassel, had cowritten a roughly US$1 million USAID grant application for a project called “The Path to a Shared Future”. The project, we discover in the Background section, builds on a previous effort known as “Best Plans”.
Best Plans: US Government-Affiliated Normalisation
“Best Plans” is a “glimmer of hope in a sea of hate“, according to a Jerusalem Post article by fellow “Free Muslims” board member Ray Hanania, which also describes an effort called the “Israel-Palestine Confederation”, headed up by Nawash associate Josef Avesar.
Held at the University Centre of Samaria, an institution located in the illegal settlement of Ariel, the group brought together a group of mostly right-wing Israeli Jewish students with a “smattering” of Palestinian citizens of Israel and “some two dozen” Palestinians from the West Bank for open-ended brainstorming on “peace plans”, ranging from Israeli Jewish participants’ plans to culturally assimilate Palestinians into the colonial society of Israel or to extend apartheid from the river to the sea, with citizenship “after an unspecified period of time” for Palestinians who profess loyalty to a state that is explicitly not theirs, to Kamal Nawash’s plan for an “Israeli-Palestinian Confederation”.
It seems to have been a good strategic choice to hold the Best Plans conference in the segregated colony of Ariel, where Palestinians are banned from entering without special dispensation from the authorities, rather than occupied East Jerusalem, where Avesar decided to hold his “Israeli-Palestinian Confederation” mock elections. Avesar’s conference had to find new accommodations after Palestinian anti-apartheid activists became aware of it.
Protesters gathered outside the hotel to condemn the process of normalization of the occupation promoted by the conference, amidst the collapse of the peace process, continuing settlement construction and the confiscation of Palestinian land.
Conference events taking place in Beit Jalah and Haifa over the next few days have promoted a false illusion of Palestine already being liberated and contributed to the normalization of the Israeli occupation. One demonstrator commented that “how would such a confederation even be possible under the occupation?”
The management of the Ambassador Hotel announced their decision to cancel the conference events in a printed statement posted at the hotel’s entrance. A hotel manager stated that “we have been manipulated by the conference organizers, who did not reveal to us its real purposes. We refuse to take part in their attempts to veil the reality of Palestinian suffering.”
The criticisms raised by the Palestinian activists concerning the Avesar event apply in equal measure to the Nawash “Best Plans” conference: Both violate the Palestinian call to boycott “normalisation” events, i.e., events that bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together to “sort out differences” without acknowledging the real context of inequality and oppression. Under the anti-normalisation prong of the Palestinian-led Boycott/Divestiture/Sanctions campaign, collaborative activities between Israeli Jews and Palestinians must explicitly state their opposition and resistance to the oppression of the indigenous Palestinian population.
One can imagine how well that plan would have gone over with the right-wing Israeli Jewish participants of the Nawash conference.
Towards a Normalised Future
The programme discussed in the USAID application turns out to be an expansion on the “Best Plans” normalisation conferences. In the words of the application:
This proposal involves the selection of two teams of Palestinians and Israelis who are representative of the various ideologies, views and schools of thought that are found in Palestinian and Israeli societies. The two teams, made up of approximately six individuals each, will be required to attend organized workshops and seminars throughout Palestine and Israel to engage Israelis and Palestinians who are representative of the general populations about the minimum contacts, rights and access that they would require to accept a political solution. The seminars will not presume a particular solution such as two-state or one-state solution. The actual proposed solution or solutions will be attempted at the end of the process after the Israeli and Palestinian teams become exposed to the wishes of population and share their findings in the structured reporting process.
This is the definition of astroturfing. Some unspecified persons – one assumes it will be Nawash and his “Free Muslims” mob – will select two teams of Palestinians and Israelis (Jewish Israelis, one assumes) who they deem “representative” of the spectrum of thought found in Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish society. Those teams will carry out what amount to glorified focus groups throughout Israel and the territories occupied since 1967 to engage Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are “representative” about their bare minimum requirements for a political solution. After the focus groups, the two teams will develop the “actual proposed solution” based on their understanding of the wishes of the “representative” people who came to their focus groups.
In addition to being “representative” in the opinion of the “Free Muslims”, these team members must also be “articulate speakers and writers with academic credentials who are able to report without adding, subtracting or reframing discussion content.” In other words, they must come from the more privileged sectors of the society, particularly given the severely limited access to education (especially higher education) for Palestinians.
No information is provided on how the “representative” focus group participants will be selected, or by whom. Crucially, there is no provision for participation by the communities themselves in defining the conditions and manner of their participation, nor any indication that the communities themselves would have any say in deciding who is “representative” and who is not. Every bit of the process is top-down, with the US government-linked “Free Muslims” deciding who participates, whom to listen to, and how to describe the wishes of their hand-picked participants.
“Importantly”, the proposal adds, “the teams will be ‘locked down’ together in a conducive environment (like the Dead Sea Resort) for a period of no less than 5 days before any conferences for a series of workshops on using technology, deal [sic] with objections, managing public discourse and workshop the conference process and the content.” “Dealing with objections” is sales-speak for wheedling a customer into saying yes to something they don’t actually want to buy. “Managing public discourse” once again emphasises that it is the “Free Muslims” team members who are managing the process, not the local communities. Their “discourse” must be managed, rather than simply being listened to.
After the initial conferences are complete, the two teams will be required to submit individual or joint proposals for peaceful solutions based on the feedback that was learned from the conferences.
Each team will be asked to try to reach an agreement on a proposed solution for the Palestinian Israel conflict. However, individual group members may submit their own proposal if they do not agree with a proposal by one or more group members.
The teams will then be required to submit their various proposals to representative audiences in Israel and Palestine. The proposal envisions six additional conferences with three in Israel and three in Palestine to test the proposals on representative audiences. The audiences will be encouraged to give their feedback on the respective proposals. Following the conferences and the feedback from the audiences, the teams will be required to reevaluate their proposals and determine whether the proposals may require amendments or improvements.
In other words, after the handpicked teams work out amongst themselves what proposals they can agree on based on what they were able to glean from the “managed discourse” of the “representative” community members who participated in the focus groups, the teams then go before more “representative audiences” (it is unclear whether these are the same “representative” audiences as the initial focus groups). These “representative” audiences will then provide “feedback”, which will be reevaluated in order to determine whether the teams’ proposals will require amendments.
Just to hammer home the importance of being “representative”, the working language will not be the native languages of the communities in question:
The experience gained in The Best Plans Project indicate that people are capable of using English as the working language with translations to Hebrew and Arabic.
So, in addition to whatever criteria the “Free Muslims” will use to determine whether a focus group participant is “representative”, the “representatives” must also have at least a working knowledge of English – which is the native language of many Jewish Israelis (including the current PM), but much less accessible to Palestinians with their limited educational opportunities – thus further restricting the field. It is not entirely clear whether “translations” means that there will be interpreters present (yet another layer of mediation between the communities and “their” plans), or whether only the written documents produced by the teams will be translated.
One can be excused for thinking at this point that this is remarkably similar to the US occupation régime’s plan for “caucuses” as a substitute for actual elections in Iraq. However, that plan may actually have involved fewer levels of mediation by “representatives” selected by outsiders.
But wait, there’s more…
After the proposals are tested before representative audiences, the two teams will then meet for face to face peace negotiations to write a peace agreement. If no united peace agreement is reached by consensus, then the two groups will be required to attempt to reach a proposal by majority vote, where as the preferred method is consensus.
If an agreement is reached the solution will be distributed to the populations via newspaper advertisements, electronic media and other written and multimedia dissemination processes. The website will be updated and adapted to allow people to read the final proposal, comment on it and cast a vote for or against the proposal.
So, after “representative” team members selected by outsiders conduct focus groups with “representatives” selected by outsiders and decide amongst themselves what they think the handpicked focus group participants want, and then focus group that proposal with even more “representatives” selected by outsiders, the two initial groups of “representatives” selected by outsiders will come together to decide on a “united peace agreement” amongst themselves. If, and only if, the “representatives” are able to reach a consensus will the public as a whole be let in on the proposals, and given an unmediated opportunity to comment on them and vote for or against them.
Essentially, then, the idea is to do a community theatre production of the bogus “peace process” with limited public participation only at the fag end of the process.
The authors of this application – Nawash, Haigh, and Gassel – are not unaware of the Palestinian movement against “normalisation” with the apartheid system, discussed above. Indeed, they expressly acknowledge its existence, and state that “The two teams must work independently (…) to avoid the anti-normalization concerns in which Palestinians are discouraged from working closely with Israelis.” Which is to say that, rather than honour the anti-normalisation campaign, they seek to circumvent it by claiming that Israeli Jews and Palestinians working on this normalisation project are not really normalising because they aren’t working on the same project in the same place at the same time.
However, it would be unfair to say that the Towards a Shared Future project doesn’t include any innovative elements. It does, chief amongst them the element of surreptitious electronic surveillance. The USAID application includes funding for the purchase of fifteen pairs of “ZionEyez” (now Zeyez) sunglasses “built-in HD camera, microphone, recording media and interface live to mobile phones”.
“These glasses”, it is noted in a footnote, “are high quality and very difficult to pick as being other than normal Raybans. They provide an ability to record events without creating a sense of ‘cameras are watching me everywhere’.”
The USAID: An Odd Partner for Social Justice Activists
Perhaps more significant than the content of the application itself is the source of the funding sought: the US Agency for International Development.
Whilst it presents itself publicly as a humanitarian aid agency helping benighted populations out of poverty, in reality, the agency is an instrument of US foreign policy, often working in tandem with another, better known, Agency. Recently, the Venezuelan-led ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América – Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America) states voted to expel USAID from their territory, following the “parliamentary coup” that ousted centre-left Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, replacing him with a politician more willing to make deals with foreign mining corporations.
This is just the most recent in a long series of coups supported in one way or another by USAID activities. In the 1960s and 1970s, USAID provided torture training and equipment to Uruguayan “security” forces, as was revealed when USAID torture instructor Dan Mitrione was captured by the Tupamaro guerrilla organisation. Similarly, USAID provided support for the military dictatorship in Brazil, the murderous “Baby Doc” Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, and, more recently, was implicated in US-instigated 2002 coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez according to the documents unearthed by lawyer and researcher Eva Golinger. USAID’s role in the current murderous coup/occupation regime in Haiti is also a matter of record.
When first confronted with the USAID connection, Yani Haigh defended the agency, stating that it is merely an agency that “distributes money based on criteria”.
This is undeniably true:
Where there is a subservient dictatorship, USAID helps prop it up. Where there is a disobedient government, USAID works with other CIA associates like the “National Endowment for Democracy” and the “International Republican Institute” to “enhance civil society”, i.e., to finance and provide propaganda for right-wing groups willing to overthrow the miscreants.
In short, USAID is about as likely an instrument of justice for the Palestinians as, well, the “Free Muslims against Terror”.
The USAID application includes a somewhat detailed bio/CV of Jon “Yani” Haigh, revealing that the “Free Muslims” and the USAID application discussed above are by far not the end of the story. Haigh’s other dubious connections will be discussed in the next instalment.
In a comment below, Haigh writes:
Anyone on that list will tell you that I never buckle to Zionists, sexists, homophobes, abuse or liars.
Fortunately, Haigh has a track record on this subject, which allows us to see exactly how strong a stance he takes against sexist abuse, in particular:
Part II of the Series:
A Who’s Who of the “Free Muslims Board
In Part I of this series, we examined the activities of Jon “Yani” Haigh, a longtime Queensland resident who operates and monitors a network of racist troll groups on Facebook, and Kamal Nawash (for whom Haigh provides a range of web design and programming services) of the “Free Muslim Coalition Against Terror” , a group that advocates the political repression and surveillance of the US Arab and Muslim communities (related to the Facebook group “Free Muslims”). This, the second part of the series, examines some of the other shady characters who make up the “Free” Muslims Coalition.
The board of the Free Muslims are exactly what you’d expect of a group with the stated purpose of putting a Muslim face on the plethora of repressive measures, human rights violations, and outright war crimes that make up the “war on terror”.
Particularly fitting is the presence on the Board of Ray Hanania, who began his career as a journo in Chicago, covering local and regional politics for the Sun-Times and other print, radio, and TV outlets. During this period, he also hosted call-in radio chatshows on WLS, and appeared regularly on Dick Kay’s City Desk on WMAQ-TV. In 1990, he served as a panellist at the Chicago mayoral debate, which resulted in yet another electoral victory for the Daley clan. Two years later, he delved headfirst into the world of Chicago machine politics, founding the Urban Strategies Group, a full-service PR agency whose clients include Mayor-For-Life Daley himself, various city agencies, aldermen, Democratic committeemen, and “three successful candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives”.
Hanania boasts particular expertise in “crisis management” for “those with serious public relation [sic] challenges”. One imagines that such expertise was quite useful during his stint providing “basic media training” to the propaganda agency of Israel’s “Palestinian Authority”. Nor could it have hurt when he was called upon by the U.S. State Department and U.S. “Information” Agency to “provide media training sessions, meetings and presentations…to foreign media and government officials.”
The public sector propagandists in Washington appear to have been satisfied with his work, and invited him to participate in meetings with Clinton and Israeli and PA officials towards “strengthening the Oslo Peace Accords”, which gave legal cover to the apartheid system in the occupied West Bank and cemented the role of al-Fatah as a collaborator with the Zionist regime.
His “successful clients” include Chicago alderman Bernard Stone, County Commissioners Maria Pappas and Allan Carr, Congressmen Danny K. Davis, Bobby Rush, the Hispanic Democratic Organization, Louis Gutierrez, Alderman Danny Solis, Democratic Central Committee member Iris Martinez, and an “independent slate” in some Indiana local municipal election. His unsuccessful clients are not listed, though one imagines that his Fatah clients probably fell in that category no later than the 2006 election.
One of Hanania’s hobbies is bashing Palestinian and solidarity activists who expose and condemn Zionist crimes and call for a political solution in Israel/Palestine based on the principles of democracy and equality for the entire population, whether Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel, or Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian-American activist and journalist Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada has earned Hanania’s undying hatred for his adherence to the boycott/divestiture/sanctions campaign supported by a broad spectrum of Palestinian civil society groups, and his call for a single, democratic, secular state “from the river to the sea”.
Demonstrating the “damage control” skills of which he boasts, Hanania describes Abunimah thusly:
Based at the University of Chicago, Abunimah is one of four founders of the online “Electronic Intifada,” where Palestinian moderation is regularly browbeaten and defamed. Abunimah is also the author of the convoluted manifesto and the rejectionist’s bible titled One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Basically, the “one-state” theory goes like this: If Palestinians will just refuse to compromise and to create two states, Israelis and Jews will simply give up so Palestinians can replace the Jewish homeland with an Islamic homeland.
“Moderation” here is to be understood in the standard sense of “obedience”. The rest of this description, like much of Hanania’s smearing of activists of integrity in the struggle for Palestinian freedom, is patently false, and makes any organisation that would include him on the board at best a questionable bedfellow for someone who, like Haigh, claims to support the Palestinian struggle.
Equally shonky is another member of the “Free” Muslims Board, one Sheikh Ahmed Mansour. An Egyptian native, Mansour sought and received political asylum in the US in 2002, and has found some interesting new friends since his arrival.
Mansour is on the board of “Americans for Peace and Tolerance“, which presents itself as
a Boston-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting peaceful coexistence in a ethnically diverse America by educating the American public about the need for a moderate political leadership that supports tolerance and core American values in communities across the nation.
In April 2011, Mansour testified before the House Select Committee on Intelligence to raise the alarm of a supposed fifth column of Arab and Muslim “extremists”, and to propose a wide-reaching programme of political surveillance and propaganda to counter Arab and Muslim opposition to US and US-sponsored Israeli policies in the region, which he describes as an “Online War of Ideas to defeat the terrorism and promote the American Image in the Muslim world“. Targets are not limited to Islamist groups, but also to:
the fanatic secular sites. They are owned by communists and leftists and the Arab fanatic nationalists who are against America and Israel. There are some Arabic sites that are owned by ex- communists who become Muslim brothers. Their discourse is not pure religious but it is strong and very active in fabricating lies and rumors to tarnish the American image. (emphasis supplied)
Some might object here that one hardly needs to fabricate lies and rumours in order to “tarnish the American image”, since the blood-soaked record of worldwide US opposition to independence and democracy is more than enough to cause the odd blemish. The same people might also suggest that the best way to hammer out the dents in “the American image” caused by these policies is to stop supporting mass murderers and refrain from slaughtering and torturing people.
Mansour, however, has a better idea. In his 2011 testimony, he proposed a wide-reaching propaganda network, which includes a “war of fatwas”, in which “moderate” Muslim leaders counter religious teachings critical of the US by issuing counter-fatwas attacking religious figures critical of the US, as well as what he termed “Daily Guards Groups”:
This group will search all the Arabic sites to defend America. Some of this team will comment on everything said about America to clear the American image. Other will write article to support the American policy. They will prove that the real enemy to the Arabs and Muslims are not the U.S and Israel. It is the local dictators and the fanatic Wahhabists and Muslim Brothers. They will also make a comparison between the American values and the Arabic Muslim dictators, and how the American Muslim Community enjoys the freedom of belief and speech in America while there is no freedom in the Muslim World. They also will prove to the Muslim World that the American values are the same original Islamic values of justice, freedom and tolerance and loving humanity. (emphasis supplied)
We can begin to understand how Mansour puts these “American values” of “justice, freedom and tolerance and loving humanity” into practice by having a look at the activities of his Boston-based group, “Americans for Peace and Tolerance“.
“Peace and Tolerance” is headed by one Charles Jacobs, who co-founded the Boston branch of the “Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America” (CAMERA) in 1989. CAMERA is a hardline “pro-Israel” propaganda organisation dedicated to justifying and whitewashing US-sponsored Israeli crimes. The group still recommends Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, a book that claims that there is no such thing as a Palestinian and that the Zionist forces’ 1948 mass expulsion of them was therefore kosher, more than twenty years after the book was conclusively and publicly shown to be a complete fraud, based on falsified statistics and a literal rewriting of the historical record on which it claims to rely.
As I wrote last year, one of CAMERA’s current projects is popularising a falsification of an obscure 1920 document known as the San Remo Resolution in an effort to deny the reality of the illegal Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a hoax on which the Israeli Palmer Commission’s “report” – which denies that the occupied Palestinian territory is in fact occupied – is substantially based.
When guys like this team up to promote “Peace and Tolerance”, it’s not hard to imagine what sort of group it actually is.
Mansour and Jacobs do not disappoint. On the “Peace and Tolerance” website, the group boast of their successful opposition to a Newton, MA city council initiative offering to take in a released Algerian Guantánamo Bay victim by the name of Abdul Aziz Naji. Even the rigged “military commissions” at the GITMO camp couldn’t find or manufacture any proof that Naji had ever picked up a weapon, but that didn’t matter to the “Peace and Tolerance” mob, who organised a scare campaign based on Naji’s alleged political views.
As a result of the “Peace and Tolerance” initiative, Aziz, who had just spent eight years in the Guantánamo bay torture centre on no credible pretext, was deported to Algeria, despite evidence that he was highly likely to face (further) torture upon his arrival. He is now in an Algerian prison, having been convicted based on the same allegations that didn’t hold water even by the extremely elastic standards of the GITMO “court”.
This condemnation of an innocent torture victim to even further suffering, “Peace and Tolerance” celebrate as a story of “people-power and grass-roots democracy in action”. In a clear demonstration of what the group’s name truly means, the report on the Newton,MA initiative on the group’s website closes by noting that “we are pressing the offending aldermen to apologize and undergo sensitivity training or face a campaign to recall them.”
There is, however, no better indication of the notion of “freedom of belief and speech” supported by Mansour and his colleagues at “Peace and Tolerance” than a look at the “Campaigns” page of the group’s website. There, the only campaign to be found is a scare campaign against political prisoner Tarek Mehanna, a Massachusetts-born pharmacy school graduate. As Glenn Greenwald reports, “[h]e was found guilty of supporting Al Qaeda (by virtue of translating Terrorists’ documents into English and expressing “sympathetic views” to the group) as well as conspiring to “murder” U.S. soldiers in Iraq (i.e., to wage war against an invading army perpetrating an aggressive attack on a Muslim nation)” This, according to the U.S. District Court, constituted “material support for terrorism”, entitling him to 17 years in federal prison. The statement Mehanna read to the court at his sentencing hearing ranks with Eugene V. Debs’ statement upon being convicted under the Espionage Act for giving an anti-war speech amongst the most important speeches ever delivered before a US court. It merits quotation in full:
Exactly four years ago this month I was finishing my work shift at a local hospital. As I was walking to my car I was approached by two federal agents. They said that I had a choice to make: I could do things the easy way, or I could do them the hard way. The “easy ” way, as they explained, was that I would become an informant for the government, and if I did so I would never see the inside of a courtroom or a prison cell. As for the hard way, this is it. Here I am, having spent the majority of the four years since then in a solitary cell the size of a small closet, in which I am locked down for 23 hours each day. The FBI and these prosecutors worked very hard-and the government spent millions of tax dollars – to put me in that cell, keep me there, put me on trial, and finally to have me stand here before you today to be sentenced to even more time in a cell.
In the weeks leading up to this moment, many people have offered suggestions as to what I should say to you. Some said I should plead for mercy in hopes of a light sentence, while others suggested I would be hit hard either way. But what I want to do is just talk about myself for a few minutes.
When I refused to become an informant, the government responded by charging me with the “crime” of supporting the mujahideen fighting the occupation of Muslim countries around the world. Or as they like to call them, “terrorists.” I wasn’t born in a Muslim country, though. I was born and raised right here in America and this angers many people: how is it that I can be an American and believe the things I believe, take the positions I take? Everything a man is exposed to in his environment becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook, and I’m no different. So, in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.
When I was six, I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed. This resonated with me so much that throughout the rest of my childhood, I gravitated towards any book that reflected that paradigm – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I even saw an ethical dimension to The Catcher in the Rye.
By the time I began high school and took a real history class, I was learning just how real that paradigm is in the world. I learned about the Native Americans and what befell them at the hands of European settlers. I learned about how the descendents of those European settlers were in turn oppressed under the tyranny of King George III.
I read about Paul Revere, Tom Paine, and how Americans began an armed insurgency against British forces – an insurgency we now celebrate as the American revolutionary war. As a kid I even went on school field trips just blocks away from where we sit now. I learned about Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, and the fight against slavery in this country. I learned about Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and the struggles of the labor unions, working class, and poor. I learned about Anne Frank, the Nazis, and how they persecuted minorities and imprisoned dissidents. I learned about Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights struggle.
I learned about Ho Chi Minh, and how the Vietnamese fought for decades to liberate themselves from one invader after another. I learned about Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid inSouth Africa. Everything I learned in those years confirmed what I was beginning to learn when I was six: that throughout history, there has been a constant struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors. With each struggle I learned about, I found myself consistently siding with the oppressed, and consistently respecting those who stepped up to defend them -regardless of nationality, regardless of religion. And I never threw my class notes away. As I stand here speaking, they are in a neat pile in my bedroom closet at home.
From all the historical figures I learned about, one stood out above the rest. I was impressed be many things about Malcolm X, but above all, I was fascinated by the idea of transformation, his transformation. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie “X” by Spike Lee, it’s over three and a half hours long, and the Malcolm at the beginning is different from the Malcolm at the end. He starts off as an illiterate criminal, but ends up a husband, a father, a protective and eloquent leader for his people, a disciplined Muslim performing the Hajj in Makkah, and finally, a martyr. Malcolm’s life taught me that Islam is not something inherited; it’s not a culture or ethnicity. It’s a way of life, a state of mind anyone can choose no matter where they come from or how they were raised.
This led me to look deeper into Islam, and I was hooked. I was just a teenager, but Islam answered the question that the greatest scientific minds were clueless about, the question that drives the rich & famous to depression and suicide from being unable to answer: what is the purpose of life? Why do we exist in this Universe? But it also answered the question of how we’re supposed to exist. And since there’s no hierarchy or priesthood, I could directly and immediately begin digging into the texts of the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, to begin the journey of understanding what this was all about, the implications of Islam for me as a human being, as an individual, for the people around me, for the world; and the more I learned, the more I valued Islam like a piece of gold. This was when I was a teen, but even today, despite the pressures of the last few years, I stand here before you, and everyone else in this courtroom, as a very proud Muslim.
With that, my attention turned to what was happening to other Muslims in different parts of the world. And everywhere I looked, I saw the powers that be trying to destroy what I loved. I learned what the Soviets had done to the Muslims of Afghanistan. I learned what the Serbs had done to the Muslims of Bosnia. I learned what the Russians were doing to the Muslims of Chechnya. I learned what Israel had done in Lebanon– and what it continues to do in Palestine– with the full backing of the United States. And I learned what America itself was doing to Muslims. I learned about the Gulf War, and the depleted uranium bombs that killed thousands and caused cancer rates to skyrocket across Iraq.
I learned about the American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq, and how – according to the United Nations – over half a million children perished as a result. I remember a clip from a ’60 Minutes‘ interview of Madeline Albright where she expressed her view that these dead children were “worth it.” I watched on September 11th as a group of people felt driven to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings from their outrage at the deaths of these children. I watched as America then attacked and invaded Iraq directly. I saw the effects of ’Shock & Awe’ in the opening day of the invasion – the children in hospital wards with shrapnel from American missiles sticking but of their foreheads (of course, none of this was shown on CNN).
I learned about the town of Haditha, where 24 Muslims – including a 76-year old man in a wheelchair, women, and even toddlers – were shot up and blown up in their bedclothes as the slept by US Marines. I learned about Abeer al-Janabi, a fourteen-year old Iraqi girl gang-raped by five American soldiers, who then shot her and her family in the head, then set fire to their corpses. I just want to point out, as you can see, Muslim women don’t even show their hair to unrelated men. So try to imagine this young girl from a conservative village with her dress torn off, being sexually assaulted by not one, not two, not three, not four, but five soldiers. Even today, as I sit in my jail cell, I read about the drone strikes which continue to kill Muslims daily in places likePakistan,Somalia, andYemen. Just last month, we all heard about the seventeen Afghan Muslims – mostly mothers and their kids – shot to death by an American soldier, who also set fire to their corpses.
These are just the stories that make it to the headlines, but one of the first concepts I learned in Islam is that of loyalty, of brotherhood – that each Muslim woman is my sister, each man is my brother, and together, we are one large body who must protect each other. In other words, I couldn’t see these things beings done to my brothers & sisters – including by America– and remain neutral. My sympathy for the oppressed continued, but was now more personal, as was my respect for those defending them.
I mentioned Paul Revere – when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minuteman. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minuteman waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.
All those videos and translations and childish bickering over ‘Oh, he translated this paragraph’ and ‘Oh, he edited that sentence,’ and all those exhibits revolved around a single issue: Muslims who were defending themselves against American soldiers doing to them exactly what the British did toAmerica. It was made crystal clear at trial that I never, ever plotted to “kill Americans” at shopping malls or whatever the story was. The government’s own witnesses contradicted this claim, and we put expert after expert up on that stand, who spent hours dissecting my every written word, who explained my beliefs. Further, when I was free, the government sent an undercover agent to prod me into one of their little “terror plots,” but I refused to participate. Mysteriously, however, the jury never heard this.
So, this trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – Soviets, Americans, or Martians. This is what I believe. It’s what I’ve always believed, and what I will always believe. This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland. So, I disagree with my lawyers when they say that you don’t have to agree with my beliefs – no. Anyone with commonsense and humanity has no choice but to agree with me. If someone breaks into your home to rob you and harm your family, logic dictates that you do whatever it takes to expel that invader from your home.
But when that home is a Muslim land, and that invader is the US military, for some reason the standards suddenly change. Common sense is renamed ”terrorism” and the people defending themselves against those who come to kill them from across the ocean become “the terrorists” who are ”killing Americans.” The mentality that America was victimized with when British soldiers walked these streets 2 ½ centuries ago is the same mentality Muslims are victimized by as American soldiers walk their streets today. It’s the mentality of colonialism.
When Sgt. Bales shot those Afghans to death last month, all of the focus in the media was on him-his life, his stress, his PTSD, the mortgage on his home-as if he was the victim. Very little sympathy was expressed for the people he actually killed, as if they’re not real, they’re not humans. Unfortunately, this mentality trickles down to everyone in society, whether or not they realize it. Even with my lawyers, it took nearly two years of discussing, explaining, and clarifying before they were finally able to think outside the box and at least ostensibly accept the logic in what I was saying. Two years! If it took that long for people so intelligent, whose job it is to defend me, to de-program themselves, then to throw me in front of a randomly selected jury under the premise that they’re my “impartial peers,” I mean, come on. I wasn’t tried before a jury of my peers because with the mentality grippingAmericatoday, I have no peers. Counting on this fact, the government prosecuted me – not because they needed to, but simply because they could.
I learned one more thing in history class:Americahas historically supported the most unjust policies against its minorities – practices that were even protected by the law – only to look back later and ask: ’what were we thinking?’ Slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of the Japanese during World War II – each was widely accepted by American society, each was defended by the Supreme Court. But as time passed andAmericachanged, both people and courts looked back and asked ’What were we thinking?’ Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the South African government, and given a life sentence. But time passed, the world changed, they realized how oppressive their policies were, that it was not he who was the terrorist, and they released him from prison. He even became president. So, everything is subjective - even this whole business of “terrorism” and who is a “terrorist.” It all depends on the time and place and who the superpower happens to be at the moment.
In your eyes, I’m a terrorist, and it’s perfectly reasonable that I be standing here in an orange jumpsuit. But one day,Americawill change and people will recognize this day for what it is. They will look at how hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed and maimed by the US military in foreign countries, yet somehow I’m the one going to prison for “conspiring to kill and maim” in those countries – because I support the Mujahidin defending those people. They will look back on how the government spent millions of dollars to imprison me as a ”terrorist,” yet if we were to somehow bring Abeer al-Janabi back to life in the moment she was being gang-raped by your soldiers, to put her on that witness stand and ask her who the “terrorists” are, she sure wouldn’t be pointing at me.
The government says that I was obsessed with violence, obsessed with ”killing Americans.” But, as a Muslim living in these times, I can think of a lie no more ironic.
One might imagine that Sheikh Ahmed Mansour, who wishes to win over the hearts and minds of Muslims the world over by telling them “how the American Muslim Community enjoys the freedom of belief and speech in America while there is no freedom in the Muslim World” would be appalled at this outcome, in which a painfully eloquent, US-born Muslim who never picked up a weapon in his life, was sentenced to nearly two decades in a maximum-security federal prison for speaking his mind. Surely, this would be a crushing blow to the message he and his colleagues seek to disseminate.
Mansour & Co. were indeed appalled – at those who protested in defence of Mehanna’s freedom of speech, or, as the “Peace and Tolerance” website would have it:
Pro-Mehanna activists harassed the U.S. Attorney’s office with persistent phone calls and sit-ins. They accused the Justice Department of racism and targeting of innocent Muslims. Mosques like the Islamic Center of Worcester and the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, held events and fundraisers in Mehanna’s support.
The guilty verdict against Mehanna is a welcome development and APT thanks the U.S. Attorney’s office for a skilled prosecution and for steadfastness in the face of extremist pressure. (emphasis supplied)
On their “Campaigns” page, “Peace and Tolerance” are flogging a video about Mehanna called “The Boston Terror Plot”, seeking to link Mehanna to an imaginary terrorist plot for which he was never charged. This is particularly absurd, given that the only “terrorist plot” Mehanna has been associated with is one for which a paid FBI informant tried to recruit him. Mehanna turned the offer down, preferring the pen to the sword.
Evidently, Free (read: “bought”) Muslims board member Mansour’s “Peace and Tolerance” outfit has about as much to do with peace and tolerance as the National Endowment for Democracy has with democracy.
As it would happen, Mansour was in fact a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy in 2002. The NED, for those unfamiliar with the organisation, is a US government “soft power” front group, dedicated to what is euphemistically known as “civil society enhancement” and “democracy promotion”. This consists of forming and funding organisations and political candidates in targeted countries who are compatible with US interests. The group was heavily involved in the 2002 military coup attempt in Venezuela, which ushered in the 48-hour dictatorship of businessman Pedro Carmona, as well as the successful 2009 coup against democratically elected Honduran president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who had strayed too far from the Washington Consensus.
At this point, it is worth recalling Mansour’s testimony before the Intelligence Committee. There, he proposed that the US engage in a “war of ideas“, a propaganda war, against those critical of US and US-sponsored Israeli crimes, spying on their websites and spamming them with comments and posts extolling “American values”. For someone who, like Mansour, seeks to militarise public debate as a “war of ideas”, there is no more dangerous person than someone who is sufficiently knowledgeable and articulate to express the outrage millions feel at the plague of torture, murder, and plunder visited on them by the United States, under the cynical pretext of bringing “freedom”.
Some may be thinking at this point that we’ve come rather far afield of where we started. Isn’t this series about Jon “Yani” Haigh? What is any of this to do with him?
As we saw in Part I, and in the reporting published by Benjamin Doherty at Electronic Intifada, Haigh provides programming, webmaster, and assorted other services for Nawash. In that capacity, Haigh has initiated, maintained, and participated in a network of racist troll groups bringing some of the nastiest white supremacists to latch on to the Palestinian solidarity movement together with their hasbara-spouting Zionist counterparts. Haigh participates in the trolling, watches the sparks fly, and meticulously monitors the goings-on in these groups supported by a collection of extremely detailed mindmaps, which, by his own account, serve to “track troublemakers” in over 200 groups.
The activities of Jon “Yani” Haigh, who claims to be a supporter of Palestinian rights (and accuses anyone who calls out his racism of not doing enough for the cause), are dubious enough taken alone. But when one takes into account that he is working for Kamal Nawash, a Washington, DC lawyer with close connections to high-ranking Bush II administration officials and proto-fascist pundits who operate private intelligence services, and who has publicly advocated for the state’s right to spy on dissident groups, things take on an entirely new dimension. When combined with the fact that the Advisory Board of the group Nawash founded – a group that openly calls on people to report “extremists” to them – also includes Sheikh Ahmed Mansour, who proposed the creation of an international network to spy on and interfere with journalists and political activists critical of the US and Israel, this raises serious questions as to what side Haigh is really on.
In the next part of this series, we will see what happens when Nawash & Co. decide to try their hands at reviving the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians. The result? The Best Plans, a programme only Ray Hanania could love. What exactly is The Best Plans? Who is behind it? Find out in Part III.
 While “Peace and Tolerance” never mention it, if the standards on which Mehanna was sent to prison were applied to non-Muslims, much of South Boston would be in prison for providing much more than mere moral support for the IRA.
 The exact character of the relationship – contractor or employee, paid or unpaid – is unclear.
Part I of a Series on Racism and Infiltration
In the aftermath of the racist tweet and multiple, contradictory “explanations” by Greta Berlin, much attention has been focussed on the letter published as an appendix to Larry Derfner’s second article on the subject, in which a number of purported members of the “secret group” corroborate Berlin’s claim that nothing untoward or anti-Semitic was going on in the group in question. Benjamin Doherty revealed, in successive articles on Electronic Intifada, that a number of the signatories were in fact sockpuppets controlled by one Ofer Engel. Another central figure, however, has largely avoided the spotlight.
Before we proceed, however, it is important to keep in mind that the following is not about any one individual, though a number of individuals will be given their time to shine. No, this is about the Palestinian solidarity movement as a whole: What we are and seek to do as a movement, and those who would hijack us for their own purposes.
Yani Haigh and The Trollpen
The final signatory on the “nothing to see here” letter is a Queensland web designer and photographer by the name of Jon “Yani” Haigh. He is, in Facebook terminology, the “owner” of the “secret group” Any Topic NOT Israel (and a regular in a number of related groups), and operates a number of anonymous and aesthetically nondescript websites, including thebestplans.org and peacearchitects.org.
This article, the first in a series dealing with the activities and associates of Jon “Yani” Haigh, will seek to provide a brief introduction to Haigh himself, and his close associate Kamal Nawash of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. In future articles, we will look at other figures on the “Free Muslims” Board, including the inimitable Ray Hanania, and other organisations and agencies with which Haigh and his associates collaborate.
A recurring theme in his posts is that “Jews suck”, and can only redeem themselves by being baptised Christian, and by boycotting Jewish community institutions and events (along the lines of Herskowitz’ schul picket). Alternatively, repentant Jews may simply send money to peacearchitects.org. Conflict, unsurprisingly, follows Haigh like the CIA follows Julian Assange.
The same can be said of other regulars of the “secret group” and affiliated groups, such as fellow signatory Kyle O’Laughlin, who divides his time in Any Topic NOT Israel fairly evenly between complaining that African-American pride is welcomed whilst “White Pride” is – shockingly enough – considered racist and posting links together with his comrade James Linden Rose on how the KKK and other white supremacist groups are in fact Jewish front groups designed to make white people look bad and thwart Ron Paul’s perennial presidential run.
Whilst the groups Any Topic NOT Israel, Our Land, and Free Muslims all have anodyne descriptions about getting to know each other and coming up with plans for peace, etc., and mission statements banning racism and flaming, the groups themselves bear little resemblance to these noble sentiments. In point of fact, the groups operate as a breeding and training ground for trolls, particularly those (like O’Laughlin, Linden Rose, and Haigh) of the white supremacist variety, mixed together with a few of the more vocal Zionist trolls. There, they engage in their preferred versions of racism, and hurl accusations back and forth about collaboration, snitching, and participation in world conspiracies of one sort or another, with little to no moderation in sight. One does have to wonder what the purpose of creating and administering a network of racist trollpens would be.
Greta Berlin, as luck would have it, is a member in several of these groups, though the exact
circumstances of her joining them will likely remain unclear, given the fog of bullshit that surrounds her and her cohorts’ descriptions of the groups.
The Company He Keeps
Yani Haigh, it must be said, is a rather embarrassing person to have vouch for one’s anti-racist credentials. Indeed, were it not for his signature on the “nothing to see here” letter and the creepily detailed set of mindmaps with which, by his own account, he monitors over 200 Facebook groups “to track troublemakers”, he would be an annoying boor of little consequence; he would merely be someone to avoid sitting in front of at the Gabba when the footie’s on, but would not merit much attention beyond that.
However, over the course of the past week, facts have emerged to place Haigh’s combination of racist boorishness and meticulous surveillance into a broader context. One of the websites Haigh designed and operates, thebestplans.org, is that of an organisation founded by one Kamal Nawash, Esq., Haigh’s employer and fellow member of the groups in question.
Kamal Nawash is a Palestinian-American lawyer, with an LL.M. from American University’s Washington College of Law.
After a stint as counsel for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), in 2003, apparently with the support of hard-right Republican activist Grover Norquist, Nawash stood for election to a seat in the Virginia state Senate. His Senate run was ultimately unsuccessful due to the general climate of scapegoating and criminalisation of Muslim and Arab life in the US.
Some might be led by such an experience to campaign against racism and bigotry. Not Kamal Nawash. Shortly after his electoral defeat, Nawash founded the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terror (and later, its Facebook counterpart, the group “Free Muslims”), an organisation largely dedicated to providing public relations cover to US government repression of the Arab and Muslim community. One view one finds repeated throughout the autobiographies of the Free Muslims Board members is that it is Muslim ideology – and not, say, decades of murderous US and US-sponsored violence against them and their countries – that is at fault for any problems in the Muslim community and the Middle East.
In 2004, the Free Muslims organised a March Against Terror, which was endorsed by a diverse cross-section of people and organisations dedicated to bigotry against Arabs and Muslims (such as Daniel Pipes), to organisations and people dedicated to more general bigotry (RIGHTALK.com), to fellow alibi Muslims such as Zuhdi Jasser of the “American Islamic Forum for Democracy”, to a wide assortment of right-wing organisations that no one had ever heard of and/or offer no proof that they actually exist (such as the “Government of Free Vietnam”, made up of former officials from the US puppet dictatorship who claim to be the legitimate government on account of having been elected fair and square to the position by four US presidents in a row).
Apparently, Nawash’s March Against Terror (and explicitly in support of Bush) caught a few eyes in Washington, because, in 2005, he was rewarded by the Bush White House with an appointment as US envoy to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Around the same time (2003-2007), Nawash began contributing to FrontPagemag.com, the far-right blog run by Stalinist-turned-fascist David Horowitz, who also operates the neo-McCarthyite campus group CampusWatch and the right-wing private intelligence organisation Discover The Networks. Nawash’s articles include titles such as We Are So Sorry for 9-11, French Riots: A Gift from the Open Borders Lobby, and the KCNA-esque Free Muslims Congratulate President George Bush.
This period in the life of Kamal Nawash has been very helpfully chronicled by none other than Daniel Pipes himself. As of 11 September 2003, Nawash earned a strong blast of scorn from the Pipes for suggesting that the Bush administration’s “anti-terrorism” (i.e., pro-repression) plan raised concerns about “basic Constitutional rights”:
Of particular interest (given that several 9/11 hijackers used a student cover), is Nawash’s objection to the U.S. government tracking foreign students, protesting (nonsensically) that this step would indicate “a willingness to restrict scientific knowledge and scholarship to certain classes of people and to flout, basically, principles of academic freedom.” Sounds like this man opposes the war on terrorism; in any case, he sure makes for a strange Republican candidate.
Throughout 2003, Pipes had nothing but contempt for Nawash, who was raising objections to the Clinton-era Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which allows the executive branch unilaterally to ban organisations as “terrorist organisations”, and criminalises anyone associated with them, criticising the designation of Palestinian groups disfavoured by the US regime as “terrorist”, and generally raising fairly mild questions about the human rights implications of the “war on terror”. Of US Senator John Warner (R-VA), who had endorsed Nawash’s candidacy for the Virginia state Senate, Pipes wrote: “Virginians might wish to inform their senior senator that he is, to put it mildly, going out on a limb on this one.”
By 2004, however, another tune began to be blown on the Pipes. In noting Nawash’s formation of the Free Muslims group, Pipes writes:
It sounds good and it has been getting lots of good publicity, but given Nawash’s record on terrorism, as established here (his dismissing the concept, his close ties to a person alleged to fund terrorism), I need to be convinced that this leopard has changed his spots.
By 2005, we find Pipes explicitly endorsing the Free Muslims March Against Terror, particularly chuffed that one Khaleel Mohammed “denounc[ed] CAIR”.
Whilst Pipes begins expressing sceptical endorsement (and Pipes has no other kind of endorsement on offer for Arabs and Muslims), by 2006, some within the exceedingly mild-mannered antidiscrimination group CAIR were expressing concern with Nawash and the way in which his remarks were eagerly snapped up by the likes of Daniel Pipes.
In two short years, Kamal Nawash went, in the mind of racist “smearcaster” Daniel Pipes, from something akin to the 20th hijacker to one of the Good Muslims. A remarkable transformation, to say the least.
Pipes’ timeline ends in 2008, but one can imagine that he would see no reason to reconsider his assessment in the light of subsequent events. In 2011, Nawash endorsed the neo-McCarthyite hearings chaired by Rep. Peter King on the “radicalisation of American Muslims”, and condemned the Muslim and Arab-American antidiscrimination organisations for their opposition to King’s efforts to further scapegoat and criminalise the Muslim community. When it was revealed this year that the NYPD had, for years, been carrying out a massive, illegal programme of spying on virtually the entire Muslim community of the Five Boroughs, Nawash, along with representatives of other Muslim astroturf groups organised a joint rally in support of the NYPD spying effort with none other than Rep. King himself.
Looking at this trajectory, one might be excused for speculating that Nawash’s conversion from moderate Republican and defender of Muslim and Arab-American rights to Pipes pet was not entirely free of opportunism.
Opportunism, as we will see as this series progresses, is something of an overarching theme.
* * * * * * *
UPDATE: In the twelve hours since this post went live, someone temporarily shut down my Facebook account, and there was an attempt to hack this blog. It appears someone might have succeeded in changing my blog password, thus preventing me getting in. All appears well now, but it does seem that someone is not exactly chuffed to bits that this article was published. They will be positively unecstatic about the subsequent parts of this series.
Meanwhile, Ali Abunimah has published his “final word” on the debacle that gave rise to this series:
Should I have been more explicit about what I saw? Perhaps, but I had my reasons to take a more restrained approach. I had hoped that by sounding the alarm, and signaling that Berlin’s explanations were not credible, Berlin herself would begin to take the issue seriously, and that the new Free Gaza board would do the same. Sadly that did not happen.
The most dispiriting spectacle over the past two weeks was seeing Berlin disseminating, and a small group of people embellishing, outlandish stories intended to distract and shift the blame on to those who were asking for accountability.
Almost every day, I’ve received emails alleging, among other things, that I am a “Zionist agent,” that I’ve been “conned” by Israel into attacking Berlin so that Israel can steal Gaza’s natural gas, that I am engaged in a “vendetta” because Berlin endorsed a book I didn’t like, and so on. A few of these messages came from people I had previously believed to be reasonable and sensible, which added to the disappointment.
Read the full article here.
Bekah Wolf of Mondoweiss has also come out with a piece very germane to the topic of this series, documenting what some of us had been saying since this began: This wasn’t just one accidental tweet. Alas, Greta Berlin has form.
Some people have come to Greta’s defense, accepting her assertion that this was a technical mistake, that she did not support the content of the video, and that those who have criticized her response to the “mistake” are on a witch hunt. I’d like to acknowledge that the Free Gaza Movement was not synonymous with Greta Berlin; some of my good friends and people I deeply respect were leaders of that movement and their work and commitment should in no way be minimized by this.
Setting aside Greta’s woefully inadequate explanations for the tweet (of which there were several), the fact remains: Greta is an active administrator of a Facebook group that is full of unabashedly anti-Semitic rhetoric and has been called out before by activists for it but has never done anything to challenge or stop it. Since the controversy broke, the “Our Land” group has attempted to cover some of its tracks. The fact that Greta remains an active administrator of a Facebook group that accommodates this kind of bigotry raises serious issues about her commitment to building an anti-racist movement committed to justice and equality. Moreover, her unprincipled, vicious andIslamophobic attacks on the Palestinians who have called her to task for her behavior should alarm all of us who are committed to Palestine solidarity work.
The full article can be found here.
Aunque los pasos toquen
Mil años este sitio
No borrarán la sangre
De los que aquí cayeron
Y no se extinguirá
La hora en que caíste
Aunque miles de voces crucen este silencio.
(“Even if this place is touched
for a thousand years by footsteps,
they won’t erase the blood
of those who died here.
Nor will the hour in which you met your death
even if thousands of voices cross this silence.”
Illapu, Aunque los pasos toquen
One of my more memorable excursions whilst in Chile was to the memorial that has been built at Avenida José Domingo Cañas no. 1367. This address, in the heart of a well-to-do residential part of the Santiago district of Ñuñoa, was once one of the most feared places in Chile’s capital. While the pleasant-looking suburban home (complete with in-ground swimming pool) that once stood there might look to some like an address anyone in Santiago might count herself lucky to call her own, the screams that could regularly be heard emanating from inside for thirteen years (1974 – 1987) made it clear to the neighbours was a place to steer well clear of.
The “taboo house” – as some of the neighbours called it – at José Domingo Cañas 1367 was a torture chamber, one of many clandestine sites in Santiago and throughout the country operated by the “security” services of dictator Augusto Pinochet. For many of Pinochet’s political opponents, this was the last place they were ever seen, alive or otherwise. Many more physically survived the ordeal, but never truly recovered.
Torture under Pinochet was a science, one taught in theory and practise by the CIA. Its operative principle: What doesn’t kill you will fuck you up for life.
For me, anyway, the impact of the memorial at the site of the discreet little dungeon at José Domingo Cañas 1367 was not
immediate. Only after I had begun the half-hour walk up José Domingo Cañas to get back to the Irarrázaval metro station did the nature of the place I’d visited, a place where scores of people had been beaten, drugged, starved, placed for extended periods in spaces so small they could neither stand nor sit, subjected to simulated drownings (“waterboarding”, in the quaint euphemism of our time), and had high-voltage current run through their arms, legs, genitals, and – on an apparatus consisting of a metal bed frame without the mattress known as la parrilla (the grill) – their entire bodies, to name just a few of the techniques Pinochet’s hit squads used to break people, finally begin to sink in.
When at last it hit me, I found that the sensation was not at all unfamiliar. While I had never actually (knowingly) visited a (former) torture centre before, the feeling of having done so was one I knew well. It was outrage at impunity.
Impunity has been one of the key features of Chile’s perennial “return to democracy”. During Pinochet’s seventeen-year reign, of course, there was no way any of the dictator’s executioners and torturers could be brought to justice. However, even since a plebiscite and the withdrawal of US support forced him to step down in 1990 (becoming a “mere” senator-for-life), Chile has been a fairly comfortable place to live for those who abducted and tortured 38,000 people, and murdered/”disappeared” at least 3,000 during the dictatorship. Trials of Pinochet’s torturers have been the absolute exception, and Pinochet himself managed to avoid trial for so long that he died of old age by the time formal charges were finally brought against him in Chile. By and large, those who spent seventeen years engaging in acts of torture so hideous that most people couldn’t even come up with them if asked to name the nastiest forms of torture they could imagine have been able to lead normal lives, often as respected professionals. Indeed, one particularly nasty specimen, Cristián Labbé, who has admitted to being a member of the dreaded DINA (Pinochet’s Murder, Inc. during the early years of the dictatorship) and who has been positively identified as having both given training in torture techniques and participating in torture himself, is currently mayor of Santiago’s upper-class Providencia district. Not long before my visit, Labbé, who is known as “Labbestia” (“the beast”), had generated even more public outrage than he normally does by participating in an event celebrating the life of General (ret.) Miguel Krassnoff*, who is currently doing time in a prison that is nicer than Santiago’s better slums for his participation in the torture and murder of large numbers of people. The slogan for the event was: “MIGUEL KRASSNOFF: IN JAIL FOR SERVING CHILE”.
People who see it that way in Chile are a tiny minority, to be sure. Unfortunately, it happens to be the same minority who basically own the country.
The lack of access to formal, legal justice in Chile has led to a creative popular response: the funa. The funa seeks to make up for the lack of effective legal sanctions for the torturers and murderers of the Pinochet regime by imposing a potent social sanction. Organisations consisting of survivors of torture, families and friends of victims, and others interested in counteracting the climate of impunity get together and seek out torturers and murderers, both known and unknown. Once they find them, they put together a detailed description of the crimes in which the person in question was involved, and go en masse to the person’s home or place of business, where they proceed to read the “indictment” in unison and otherwise act to let the crim’s friends, colleagues, and neighbours know just who they’re sharing a street or office with. One popular funa chant goes ¡Alerta, alerta, alerta, vecino! ¡Al lado de tu casa vive un asesino! (Alert, alert, alert neighbour! You’ve got a murderer living next door).
The result is a potent combination of catharsis for the survivors and their supporters, and public humiliation and exposure for the perpetrators.
One particularly memorable funa was that against the murderer of beloved Chilean folksinger Víctor Jara, who was tortured, riddled with bullets, and chucked into a ditch by the soldiers in charge of the National Stadium, which had been turned into a concentration camp in the days following the 11 September 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power. Víctor Jara, who had been an outspoken supporter of the democratically elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende, was amongst the first killed. For decades, his murderer had been able to live his life in anonymity; no one knew that he had been responsible for the brutal murder of a man who even today makes the list of the Ten Greatest Chileans in the polls. Through interviews with others who had been held with Jara at the stadium, and who were there when he was taken off to be executed, the funa organisers were able to figure out that the killer was one Edwin Dimter Bianchi, alias “The Prince”, who was working at the time in a middle-management position in the Labour Ministry.
The funa, which was taped by a Spanish documentary team, was a wonder to behold. The group, which included one of Víctor
Jara’s daughters, stormed the office where Dimter worked, distributed flyers detailing his involvement in the killing, the content of which they recited in unison, and then descended on Dimter’s office. Dimter nearly had a heart attack, and ended up falling back on his desk. His shocked expression upon hearing that they knew that he had murdered Víctor Jara was a true thing of beauty – the look of a man who in the space of a few seconds had gone from being sure that he could live out the rest of his days without fear of discovery to knowing that he would now be known forever as the murderer of one of the most beloved people in the history of Chile. Speaking as someone who knows most of Jara’s discography by heart, I’ve watched it four times, and I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.
“The thing about some low-paying public service jobs”, a character in the excellent film Fracture tells the protagonist, a young, hot-shot assistant district attorney keen on landing a six-figure job in the private sector as a corporate lawyer, “is that sometimes you get to put a fucking stake into a bad guy’s heart.” There’s nothing quite like watching the stake go in.
Dimter, of course, won’t be doing any jail time. But he did lose his job at the Ministry of Labour, and he has to spend the rest of his life as the guy who everyone knows crushed the wrists of a beloved guitarist and put over forty bullets into his body. Jail terms for Pinochet’s goons are short, but Youtube is forever.
On Facebook, a list has been circulating for some time amongst Chilean activists of physicians who were involved in torture in various capacities who are still practising today. The list includes names, addresses, and phone numbers. Day after day, people in Chile are working to make sure that the people who made Chile a hell on earth for so many during Pinochet’s dictatorship have nowhere to hide, even if they never have to worry about charges being brought against them.
I think about this quite often, because we are seeing something quite similar in the United States. The people who helped start up the torture programme in the worldwide archipelago of dungeons and concentration camps of which Guantánamo is but the most prominent member – the lawyers who came up with the legal cover for the programme and the army of academic specialists, including physicians, psychologists, and other members of the helping professions, who developed the torture protocols and supervised their execution as part of the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT, pronounced “biscuit”), as well as the military physicians and medical examiners who falsified death certificates to convince grieving families that their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives all died of purely natural causes rather than severe beatings, drowning, and intentional drug overdoses – are gradually trickling back into civilian life as respected professionals, university professors, and otherwise upstanding members of the community. The people who were responsible for developing a system of torture designed to destroy human beings physically and mentally, ruining thousands of lives worldwide (and more every day), are washing their hands and re-entering their lives, with no one the wiser about who they’re living and working next to.
As the title of the first post-war German film put it, The Murderers Are Among Us.
Against that background, I’ve often thought that we need to take a lesson or two from Chile, and track down each and every one of these upstanding citizens, publishing their names, addresses, and phone numbers, and pay visits to each and every one of them. If we as a society are ever to have a place in the world other than well-deserved scorn, the least we can do is make it abundantly clear to each other and the world at large that we do not allow crimes against humanity to go unpunished, whether the courts are willing to do their job or not.
But I somehow think that, even if we had every single name – with home and work contacts, e-mail, and social security number – of every single person involved in designing the torture protocols that have repeatedly turned otherwise healthy people into incoherent wrecks suffering from severe psychosis (those who survive, anyway) – there just wouldn’t be the enthusiasm to go after them here that there is in Chile. The more I consider it, the less likely it seems to me that we would see throngs descending on the homes and places of business of these criminals the way they do when a funa is called in Santiago.
This is not to say that people in the US necessarily think torture is acceptable, though there are some disturbing survey results concerning the younger generation (who have grown up watching torturer-cum-hero Jack Bauer on 24). However, the relationship to torture in the US is entirely different to that one sees in Chile.
In Chile, a country of around 15 million people, 3,000 were murdered and 38,000 imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet regime. As a proportion of the population, that is as if 60,000 people were murdered and 760,000 tortured in the US. Put simply, it is hard to find someone in Chile whose life was not touched at least tangentially by Pinochet’s terror. A substantial part of that country’s population has lost friends, relatives, close family members, neighbours, or colleagues to extrajudicial executions and “disappearances”, and an even greater share of the population will, at least tangentially, know someone who survived a stint in Pinochet’s dungeons. Put simply, torture and “disappearance” in Chile are intensely personal; they are things that were done to people they know, or at least know of: a brother whose body was found mutilated in the Mapocho river, a colleague who seemed terribly worried for a week before never showing up to work again, the neighbour two doors down who had an army truck pull into his driveway and whose house stood vacant for months thereafter until some third party decided to put it into the market, the husband who survived the torture chambers but might as well not have done… In Chile, these are things that happen here, to people you know, or people like you.
Not so in the US. Indeed, one might say that the genius of the crimes of the regime in Washington is precisely that: They don’t feel personal. They’re abstract. They’re moral issues that we get quite exercised over now and then, but from a very safe distance. Torture and “disappearance” aren’t something we fear might happen to us, or to someone we know, or to that nice guy down the street. They’re things that people we’ve never heard of and will never meet do in countries most of us couldn’t find on a map, in camps with names most of us couldn’t pronounce, to people whose existence is a matter of profound oblivion to us. We don’t know them. We don’t know anyone who knows them. We don’t even know someone who knows someone who knows them. They are abstractions. And thus, so are the crimes that end or ruin their lives. So the people who worked out how much LSD you could mainline into one of our kidnap victims to put him on a bad trip while still making sure he’d come of it, the people who figured out the precise difference in time and units of oxygen between a simulated drowning and a real one, the people who work out the most effective ways to crush and humiliate a person based on individual, social, and cultural factors, using the skills once imparted to them in the hope they might do good with them in order to do intentional, irreparable, devastating harm, are not people towards whom we bear any personal animosity. Yes, it’s an awful business, and most of us agree that it’s not something we want done in our name. But it’s nothing personal, and so it remains on the level of a philosophical debate.
In Chile, it’s personal. It could hardly be otherwise.
And if we can manage to make it personal for us, personal enough that we feel a fervent desire to expose every last perpetrator and turn them into latter-day pariahs before we actually do have to worry about it happening to us next (that day is closer than most suspect), then perhaps we can one day aspire to the moral seriousness and maturity of those in the world who don’t need to be reminded that this is not a theoretical issue.
That, at any rate, was the excursion I went on following a lovely Italian dinner at Golfo di Napoli in Avenida Irarrázaval, a restaurant that, incidentally, I wholeheartedly recommend (best Italian in Santiago).
* Fun Krassnoff fact: During the torture of a member of the resistance, a witness heard Krassnoff exclaim, “Apart from being a Marxist, the fuckin’ slag is a Jew, so she’s definitely gotta die.” Which she did. It is no exaggeration to say that Krassnoff’s only redeeming feature is that he is biodegradable.
Almost four years into the carnival of horrors that is the Obama administration, there are still delusional people out there who think Obama just needs to “grow a pair”.
There are a lot of things that can be said about Obama, but to say that he lacks balls is to announce that one lacks contact with reality. We’re talking about the guy who ran on “protect whistleblowers” only to declare an unprecedented war on whistleblowers the minute he was elected. The guy who ran on “protect civil liberties” only to make Bush II’s human rights record look good. The guy who brazenly claims to have outlawed torture despite the fact that torture was already outlawed and his own executive order explicitly allows torture. This is the guy who accepted the Nobel Peace prize with a speech on how important it was to him to keep killing lots of people.
This is the guy who is so openly laughing at all of us that he rammed an attack on Social Security through as a “Jobs Bill”, and then followed it up by championing a law that legalised securities fraud by calling it the “JOBS ACT“. This is the guy whose administration helped coordinate the violent nationwide crackdown on Occupy.
From the minute he started choosing the cabinet to the minute his administration announced that it has the right to execute any of us without trial, Obama has been running around the globe screaming “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! BOW DOWN, MOTHERFUCKERS! I’M YOUR GOD NOW!”
Grow a pair? The man has balls as big as all outdoors.
Asymptote - n., a line or curve that constantly approaches nil without ever reaching it.
Si la presidenta no te cuenta la pulenta, lo hago yo
Chile está en venta desde que la Concerta ganó el NO
Aylwin, Lagos y también Frei dieron paso a Bachelet
Donde el mercado se hace rey y el subcontrato se hace ley
Mi canto no es de mala fe, tengo evidencia suficiente
Pa’ condenar a muerte a veinte dirigentes malolientes
Solamente basta con mirar las calles desde el Transantiago
4 millones de detalles cotidianos
Me confirman que la ciudadanía está pintada
Elección tras elección, la votación no cambia nada
If President Bachelet won’t tell you what’s up, I’ll have a go:
Chile’s been for sale ever since the Concertación won one for NO.
Aylwin, Lagos, and then Frei made way for Bachelet,
where the market is king and outsourcing’s the big thing.
I’m not singing in bad faith. I’ve got sufficient evidence
to condemn to death twenty foul-smelling leaders.
All you need to do is look through the windows of Santiago’s buses,
4 million pieces of evidence every day,
confirming that the people are are the ones taking the hits,
we’ve had vote after vote, and the elections don’t change shit.
- Infórmate, Subverso
The Chile that was now racing past my window on the bus was not the same country it had been just two years prior (and if we go back a bit further, say, 120 years, I would not even have left Perú yet, but that is another story). For the past year, the country had been undergoing a long-overdue thaw after roughly two decades of hibernation. To understand the Chile I was now in, we must go back about thirty years.
The 1980s were a time of escalating mass-upheaval in Chile. The economic “reforms” implemented by the Pinochet dictatorship under the tutelage of a handful of Milton Friedman disciples from the University of Chicago known as the “Chicago Boys” – for which the dictatorship was and is roundly praised by the business press – had brought the country to the brink of collapse. The privatised pension funds went bankrupt (by sheer coincidence, the pension funds for the armed forces and national military police, who ran the country, had remained public, and thus, intact), the deregulated and privatised banks had fallen apart (bringing a cool billion to Sebastán Piñera Echenique, then under investigation for bank fraud and now president of Chile). Protectionist policies were abolished, and Chile’s fragile domestic industries either folded due to unrestricted competition with their heavily subsidised foreign (read: US and European) counterparts, or were taken over by them. Wages went into freefall, and unemployment skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the faux plebiscite by which the 1980 constitution (which remains in force to this day) was imposed, had provided the spark that ignited a more assertive movement in opposition to the Pinochet’s reign of terror.
Pinochet’s military junta had been able to keep the majority of the population in on the defensive since taking over the country in
1973 with a combination of extrajudicial executions (though Attorney General Holder informs me that these are in fact perfectly legitimate “targeted killings”), hellish torture (sorry, “harsh interrogation tactics” is what the New York Times would like me to call it), and “disappearances” (a practise recently codified in the US when Obama signed the NDAA), all in the name of national security and “protecting freedom” against “terrorists” and “extremists”. Any segment of the population deemed a threat to Pinochet’s rule – principally poor people and anyone who worked with them to improve their lives – systematically decimated in a vicious campaign of state terror (sorry, “counterinsurgency”). It was, as you can see, not exactly a propitious climate for independent political organisation.
By the 1980s, however, people were increasingly fed up. Over that decade, large segments of the population defied Pinochet’s goons to organise 22 national days of protest, as well as countless less visible forms of protest and resistance throughout the country. At one point, Pinochet was almost “targetedly killed” himself. The poblaciones (slums) of Santiago, full of people with generations of experience with brutal repression, became foci of militant resistance.
Even a number of prominent supporters of the coup and the régime that rode in on it jumped ship and joined the opposition for various reasons. Some, such as ex-president Eduardo Frei Montalva, whose speech against the 1980 constitution was one of the first public acts of protest, did so on principled grounds. Many coup supporters had assumed that this coup would be more or less like the other (rare) military coups in the country’s history, in which the military more or less immediately handed power over to the Congress and held new elections, only to be sorely disappointed when the junta shut down the Congress, effectively banned all political parties, dotted the land with concentration camps, and started making people “disappear”. This camp also included Tucapel Jiménez, the popular leader of ANEF, the public sector workers’ union, who had trusted the coup plotters when they promised a better deal for his membership, only to find public sector employees subjected to a massive attack by the dictatorship’s economic policies.
Both Frei and Jiménez met bad ends during the 1980s. Frei went to hospital for routine surgery before a planned trip to Europe, and died in a freak “therapeutic misadventure” later to discovered to have been something to do with weaponised botulism being injected into his body.
Jiménez, who had been forced out of his position as head of ANEF due to his opposition to the dictatorship and declined a substantial “severance” payment offered to him on the condition that he shill for the dictatorship’s private pension scheme (“I’m not going to deceive the workers.”), was murdered whilst driving the taxi with which he was left to try to make a living. The murder was staged by the CNI (secret police) to look like a robbery. The CNI actually went to the length of finding an alcoholic, unemployed construction worker by the name of Juan Alegría, filling him up with wine, and forcing him to write a suicide note confessing to the murder of Tucapel Jiménez. The whole thing probably would never have been uncovered had Alegría’s mother not remembered that he had repeatedly told her about people following him, and noticed that the wine bottle found with his body was white wine (Alegría only ever drank red wine).
Others, such as Patricio Aylwin, had no real quarrel with the coup or the policies of the dictatorship, and simply felt that Pinochet had outlived his usefulness. He had done everything they wanted him to do, and now stood in the way of new faces (i.e., themselves) moving in to manage the house that Pinochet built.Aylwin went on to become Chile’s first post-dictatorship president, and just recently, in early June 2012, gave an interview praising the Pinochet régime.
Eventually, the disaffected coup supporters joined forces with the members of the political class who had opposed the coup and the régime all along, the Socialist Party (founded by Allende), the Communist Party, the Radical Social-Democratic Party, and the newly formed PPD (Party for Democracy), to form the Concertación de partidos por el NO (Coalition of Parties for the NO Vote), which campaigned against keeping Pinochet in office during the 1988 plebiscite.
The NO vote ultimately won, but it was in many respects a Pyrrhic victory for average people. The Concertación agreed to what
eminent Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar describes as an “institutional transition”, which left the fundamental structures of the dictatorship intact. This meant that the 1980 constitution imposed by the dictatorship, which carved into stone the far-right social and economic policies of the régime, remained in force. The Senate was packed with “designated” senators, hand-picked by the executive branch, as well as “senators-for-life” (including Pinochet himself). A certain number of seats were set aside for unelected military officers, the backbone of the dictatorship. The national police force, Carabineros de Chile, itself part of Pinochet’s junta, had substantial autonomy from the courts and the elected government. The “binominal” electoral system crafted by the dictatorship made it next to impossible for any party to gain a majority in the Congress, whilst ensuring that the phenomenally unpopular right-wing parties would always have enough seats to control the legislative agenda no matter how the people voted.
Meanwhile, the years of dictatorship had caused the Socialist and Christian-Democratic Parties, once mass parties with a significant working-class base, to become élite organisations, alienated from the grass roots. Sharing power under the banner of the Concertación, they governed Chile for twenty years, from 1990 to 2010, and not only never once deviated from the dictatorship’s economic policies (which left working people utterly at the mercy of multinational corporations, with no meaningful social safety net) – they actually intensified these policies, handing control of crucial infrastructure – roads, public utilities, even the water – over to foreign corporations. For all their condemnations of Pinochet’s brutal repression, they proved quite enthusiastic users of the very institutional infrastructure of repression they had once (verbally) opposed. Protests by workers, students, and the indigenous Mapuche people were brutally repressed (the latter have seen quite a few activists killed by police with no credible pretext), and their organisations systematically crushed by the police and intelligence services. All this led, predictably, to that special blend of generalised discontentment and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it that his commonly known as “democracy”. People were so focussed on surviving in a hostile environment that they left politics to the small élite that owns the place.
The overall mood was nicely summed up by an acquaintance of mine on the twentieth anniversary of the “return to democracy”:
They say the NO vote won, but we have the YES constitution, the YES electoral system, the YES Labour Code, and the YES ban on therapeutic abortion. What the hell did we win?
Al medio de un gentío
que tuvo que afrontar,
un transbordo por culpa
del último huracán,
en un puerto quebrado
cerca de Vallenar,
con una cruz al hombro
Run-Run debió cruzar
Run-Run siguió su viaje
llegó al Tamarugal.
Sentado en una piedra
se puso a divagar,
que si esto que lo otro,
que nunca que además,
que la vida es mentira
que la muerte es verdad,
In the middle of a crowd
that had to face a ferry voyage
because of the last hurricane,
in a broken-down port near Vallenar,
with a cross on his shoulder
Run-Run had to cross.
Run-Run continued his travels,
arrived at the Tamarugal.
Seated on a stone,
he began to ruminate.
If this, if that other thing,
if never, and furthermore,
that life is a lie and that death is the truth.
- Violeta Parra, Run-Run se fue pal norte
My first night in Chile – with the possible exception of having to dodge traffic on Avenida Sta María because no one had thought to advise pedestrians that there was no place to walk due to construction on one side of the street – was fairly calm. I dined on a thoroughly middling meal of empanadas (Chilean calzones, but smaller) and chips – chips, I would find, are almost invariably good in Chile – and then retired to my room at the Rocca Luna to recharge my camera batteries, check the bus timetables, and then recharge myself. Even given the manifest shortcomings of the bed, my body did not require much coaxing in order to fall asleep.
I awoke the next day, thoroughly refreshed, took another shower (I could never shower enough after these long bus rides), and went downstairs, where I was greeted by the man who had welcomed me the night before.
“You still planning on leaving today?” he asked, after the pleasantries had been exhausted.
“Yes,” I replied, “in a couple of hours.”
“Do you need any help with your things?”
I indicated that this would be greatly appreciated.
“Any chance I might be able to leave my bags here for a couple of hours while I take care of a few things in town?”
I did not want to be burdened with all that luggage while getting coffee and bus tickets, or anything else, unless absolutely necessary.
“Of course,” he replied.
“Great. I’ll be back in an hour or so. Thanks.”
I did not go too far. I simply crossed the street to get to the bus station, where I planned on getting my tickets and a cup of coffee.
As I looked for the Tur-Bus counter – a company I had decided on by virtue of having heard of them – I considered my plans. I had been thinking of taking the trip in two legs, first stopping to spend a few hours in Iquique, which I had been told by a friend who lived there was a lovely city, and then continuing on to Santiago. Fuck that, I believe, were the words that put an end to my deliberations. I very much wanted to see Iquique, but I wanted to end this journey even more. I was not looking forward to schlepping my luggage about whilst trying to explore a new city. I just wanted to reach Santiago, where I was very eagerly awaited by friends and the opportunity to get some proper rest (recovering from this trip would take a few days at the very least).
Tur-Bus offers four classes of buses, the basic Clásico, which I have never actually experienced, Semi-Cama (Half-Bed), which is the fairly standard intercity bus with reclining seats and not much more, Salón-Cama, offering something in the nature of an easy chair, and Premium, which I am told is so comfortable that one barely realises one is on a bus.
The bus I ended up taking was a Semi-Cama due to leave Arica at 2 PM, giving me a good two and a half hours to get ready. Assuming everything was on schedule, I would be arriving at Santiago’s main bus terminal, Terminal Alameda, at 6 PM the next day.
Upon my return to the Rocca Luna, I found that my suitcase was already downstairs waiting for me.
“I’d like to get online for a little bit just to let my friends in Santiago know when to expect me, if that’s all right.”
“Feel free”, replied the man, who I hope does not have chronic back pain from lugging my things up and down that narrow staircase.
I went over to one of the tables set up for this purpose in the downstairs common area, set up my computer, and informed everyone who needed to know of my itinerary.
I would be staying in an apartment made available by my friend Cristián in the district (comuna)
of Recoleta. Cristián, a popular political cartoonist with whom I had maintained an artistic exchange of sorts for the past couple of years, based on a shared sense of humour and shared political convictions, occasionally used the apartment as a studio. When it was not in use, he often hired it out to people looking for a place to stay. Many a mutual friend had spent time there.
This I was greatly looking forward to. For one thing, I had always admired Cristián’s work and enjoyed our conversations, which I was excited to at last be able to continue in person. For another thing, it would be nice to have a proper apartment, rather than impersonal hotel, to stay in.
The announcement, some weeks prior, of my upcoming visit , had unleashed a veritable wave of creativity amongst my friends there, nearly all of whom are involved in independent media in one way or another. Several had online radio shows with which I had collaborated as a call-in guest on various occasions, and hoped to do live shows with me during my stay. Cristián was in the process of launching an online TV show in which he and whatever guests happened to show up for a taping would engage in freestyle discussion of current events and whatever else came to mind, and wanted to have me on the show. Quite a few others were simply excited to get to meet me in person after months – and sometimes years – of online correspondence. It was extremely mutual.
It was clear that Santiago would be extending me a welcome, the like of which I had never before experienced in a new city. Essentially, a whole community of like-minded artists, writers, and journalists were awaiting my visit with a degree of excitement that I am quite unaccustomed to generating. Though I had never before been to the city, and knew of it only what I had gleaned over the years from exhaustive reading and what I had learnt from my friends there, I was, in a sense, already part of a community there. I could not wait to arrive.
Having informed my welcoming committee of my ETA, I decided to make my way over to the station. I still had over an hour left before I had to get on the bus, and the station was just across the street, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. For one thing, I wanted to budget enough time to make it to the station whilst loaded down with luggage. It seemed likely that I would have to stop and rest my aching shoulders at some point during the 300 metre walk to the nearest crosswalk. For another, I am quite paranoid about missing trains, buses, and flights. The last thing I want is to find myself stranded because I’ve missed the final boarding call by 30 seconds. As such, I generally try to be an hour or so earlier than is strictly necessary, and tend to plan an overnight stay if I am going to have to transfer between modes of transportation during a long trip such as this one. That way, late arrivals will not require me to rethink my entire itinerary.
I arrived at the station with 45 minutes to spare, stopped at the kiosk in front to pick up a copy of THE CLINIC, a satirical newspaper that also includes occasionally informative reporting, and went inside to get a cup of coffee.
The coffee, as it turned out, was some crap instant variety that made a valiant effort to look like coffee, but lacked both the flavour and the caffeine. At the time, I assumed this was down to the fact that bus station snack bars rarely offer haute cuisine. However, I later discovered that this was more or less the standard of coffee on offer at most establishments. In part, this is because Chileans, by and large, are tea drinkers. For another thing, most of South America’s abundant coffee production is for export to North America and Europe. Finding a good cup of coffee in Chile would prove to be a matter of considerable trial and error.
I found a spot in front of the terminal, arranged my bags around me, and read the paper while trying to convince myself that I was actually drinking coffee. This was not easy.
For a long time, I have felt that the instant coffee manufacturers who insist on insulting our intelligence with these “blind taste test” adverts should not be allowed to cherry-pick their footage, showing only the reactions of agusia sufferers. They should be required to use the first take, no matter what the reaction:
PRESENTER: Good afternoon, I just wanted to tell you that we arranged to swap this establishment’s normal whole-bean coffee for Plonker’s freeze-dried crystals.
PATRON: Ah, that explains it, then. Thank you for informing me. We were just about to tell our waiter that the coffee must have gone off, weren’t we, Clive?
CLIVE: Yes, we were just remarking on how the coffee had the same full-bodied aroma as my socks after an afternoon at the tennis court.
GUEST AT NEIGHBOURING TABLE (interrupts): Oh, fuck off, did you hear that? This mob are trying to save money by swapping our coffee for that powdered shit from Plonker’s!
HASTY CUT TO VOICE OVER: Plonker’s Crystals – Our flavour is our trademark.
Not too far from me, I saw a thin, mid-twentyish man having a smoke next to a well-worn rucksack. One of his shoes appeared untied.
“Excuse me”, I began, “Just thought you might want to know your shoe’s untied.” He would likely have discovered this on his own in due time, but the fact was that I was starving for conversation after what already felt like a hundred years of solitude.
“Ah, so it is”, he replied, “Where you off to?”
“That’s the one.”
“Turns out we’re waiting for the same bus,” he grinned.
We exchanged names, and as is my habit, I forgot his almost immediately. I recall only his surname, Toloza, which I glimpsed when he took out his ID at a police checkpoint. Toloza, as it turned out, was a student at Arica’s Universidad de Tarapacá, on his way home to the northern coastal city of Tocopilla, about 16 hours south of Arica. I was not exaggerating when I said that Arica was convenient to nowhere.
We got on immediately, both quite happy to have a companion for the long road ahead. Not long thereafter, a friend of his, who had come to see him off, joined us. Following the introductions, Toloza asked if we’d fancy something to eat.
“Do you think we’ve got time?” I asked.
He checked his watch.
“Oh yeah, heaps. Plus, it’s not too far away.”
“Sounds good to me, then,” I replied. I had rather been hoping to get something decent to eat, since I doubted anything edible would be available on the bus, but, after the medley of mediocrities I’d risked my life for the night before, I had no idea where I might find anything.
Toloza and his friend picked up my luggage, leaving me with nothing to carry but my purse, and we proceeded down Avenida Santa María in search of sustenance. My back hadn’t felt this good since New York. We ended up at one of Chile’s many pollerías, which are fast-food-type restaurants specialising in chicken in all its forms. Chicken is extremely popular in Chile, and quite well prepared virtually everywhere it can be found. We divided up a roast chicken, which I combined with a monumental, order of chips, and had a lively and enjoyable conversation, of which I can recall pretty much nothing except how good it was to have someone to talk to. I quite enjoy travelling alone, but I was not really accustomed to spending so much time in silence.
Once we’d finished, we made our way back to the station. Hugs and kisses good-bye followed, and Toloza and I went inside.
“Do you have your boarding pass?” Toloza asked me.
“My ticket? Yeah, right here”, I indicated my pocket.
“No,” he shook his head, “you also need a boarding pass to get onto the platform.”
I had never heard of a bus terminal requiring a boarding pass in addition to the ticket, and, indeed, no other station I visited in Chile had such a policy. I imagine it is probably a way to keep at least some of the tourism revenue in Arica, rather than all of it going to the home offices of the bus companies. In any event, the boarding pass cost only 100 pesos.
Soon enough, the bus arrived, and Toloza and I handed over our checked baggage, boarded, and found two adjacent seats in the back of the bus. Once we were seated, I pulled out my camera and attached the wide-angle lens so that I would be ready as soon as anything photogenic came into view.
It turned out that Toloza was an excellent travelling companion in more ways than one. He was, in fact, something of an area specialist, doing postgraduate work in the history of northern Chile, and knew pretty much every inch of the land between Arica and his home in Tocopilla. As we progressed southward on Ruta 5, he made sure to let me know in advance when something noteworthy was coming up. Because of his studies, not only could he tell me when something was about to come into view; he could actually provide all manner of interesting information about what it was and how it got there. This was the first time I’d ever had such a knowledgeable guide, and it was entirely by coincidence.
We passed the hours talking about everything that came to mind, but every once in a while, he’d change gears:
“If you look out the window in just a second, you’ll see a riverbed that dried out thousands of years ago. It’s what’s known as a wadi.”
I had heard the term wadi used many times, but had never actually been clear on what it was. What it was, in this case anyway, was spectacular. Shortly after Toloza made this announcement, a huge rift in the earth, almost a canyon, came into view, with steep, smooth walls and a smattering of intense green that looked like grass or small shrubs at the bottom. It was impossible to get a sense of scale from our vantage point on top, but, even so, it was clearly immense. In the photos I took of these chasms, clearly the product of water having eaten through the ground for untold millennia before finally drying out at some point in advance of recorded history, I noticed later that the wadis could have been anywhere between two and two thousand metres deep.
Fortunately, a few hours after our departure from Arica, we actually passed through one of these wadis, one in which there was still a bit of water flowing. This wadi was home to the small desert town of Camarones (“prawns”, for some reason) on the border between Arica and Tarapacá Region and Iquique Region. From below, it is much easier to see the order of magnitude on which the wadis of the Atacama Desert exist. What I had thought when looking from above were small shrubs and patches of grass, turned out in fact to be trees as tall or taller than the bus we were in. Cars, buses, and semis driving on the inclined corkscrew road that allowed them to ascend to the high ground, looked like something small enough for a toddler to choke on. If you were to try to take it on foot and climb straight up the wall of one of these wadis, you would have at least a day of extremely hard going.
My eyes may have been playing tricks on me after so many hours surrounded by shades of brown, counterbalanced only by the purest, bluest sky I have ever seen, but I don’t think I have ever seen a more intense, vivid green colour than those rare green spaces in the desert, especially those in the wadis of northern Chile. I have always had a neutral attitude towards the colour green – my favourites have always been red tones – but the splashes of green in the midst of so much arid land were positively spellbinding.
When I got dressed that morning, I had decided to put on my ankle-length, full denim skirt. It seemed the most comfortable option for such a long bus ride, since it was long and loose enough to curl up underneath like a makeshift blanket. This, it turned out, was an exceedingly bad idea indeed. In my defence, I would like to note for the record that had no way of knowing this beforehand, but I soon discovered that the toilets on Chilean buses (at least on Tur-Bus) were most likely not only designed – but also field-tested – exclusively by men. This is the only explanation that occurs to me for the decision to put the toilet seat on a spring that makes it pop up unless you keep constant pressure on it. The upshot of this was that, every time I visited the facilities, I had to lift up my skirt to avoid the hemline dragging in the decidedly unappetising collections of fluid that had accumulated on the floor, whilst using the other hand to hold the door shut, because it did not latch properly, and somehow simultaneously hold down the seat long enough that I could sit down without falling down a hole that could easily have been given pride of place in Dante’s Inferno (perhaps as the punishment for misogynists). This would have been enough of a feat as it was, but I also had to do all of this whilst holding my breath so as not to pass out or vomit from the stench of excrement that had clearly been simmering for days in the desert heat. Consequently, my visits to this corner of the vehicle were extremely rare, and made only when I had reached the point of longing for a Foley.
It was jeans and t-shirts for travel days from then on.
Eventually, the sun set over the desert, and we were surrounded in nearly total darkness, save for the incredible array of stars that can be seen in the area. This is, as I have noted ad nauseam by now, the most arid place on Earth. It has virtually no humidity, and the skies are almost always cloudless. Because of this, you can see what appear to be millions of stars spread out before you if you look up. It is truly breathtaking. So many stars are so clearly visible in the Atacama Desert, in fact, that the European Space Agency acquired some land in the most arid section of the desert in order to build an observatory. The land had been owned by a pirquinero, a poor, small-time prospector looking to stake a claim to a small portion of Chile’s vast mineral wealth, but was bought up by a Chilean businessman – who did not see fit to tell the pirquinero why the sudden interest in this barren tract of land – when it became known that the ESA wanted to build an observatory. The pirquinero received a tiny fraction of the ultimate sale price paid by the European Union for the land. While even that tiny fraction was enough to significantly improve the living standard enjoyed (or endured) by a pirquinero, I can’t imagine he was overjoyed to discover that he had been swindled out of a sum of money that would have more or less guaranteed that he would never have to work again.
A few hours after dark, the bus began to slow down, and one of the two drivers announced that we were going to have to get out for a customs inspection. Arica is part of a zona franca, a duty-free zone. For customs purposes, this area is not entirely considered part of Chile. As such, the customs service inspect all southbound travellers before allowing them to proceed. Toloza and I got out with our carry-on luggage and waited on the pavement for the drivers to unload our suitcases.
“They are going to do a manual inspection”, the driver announced, prompting groans from a number of people who had been hoping to get back to sleep sometime soon.
Personally, I didn’t mind all that much. The air was brisk, with a pleasant breeze, and I had a chance, after so many hours, to stretch my legs and have a smoke. There were tables set up under the shelter roof for our belongings to be laid out, so Toloza and I set ourselves up there and waited. It was probably at least half an hour before an agent showed up to inspect our things. When she did, all she did was unzip my suitcase a few inches, run her fingers through it, and zip it up again.
“Right, you’re set, then.”
When she was out of earshot, I couldn’t help laughing a bit.
“What the hell was the point of that?” I asked Toloza, “Are they trying to catch the dumbest drug smugglers in the hemisphere or something?”
He laughed, “Actually, what they’re really interested in is consumer electronics. They want to catch people out who bought more than the maximum permitted.”
“Still”, I said, “how would they ever find anything with an ‘inspection’ like that? Anyone could just put a few layers of clothes over their stereo or whatever, and customs would never be the wiser.”
He thought about this. “Touché.”
“But at least, thanks to the Chilean National Customs Service, we’re finally getting a decent smoke break,” I added, and we both laughed.
I dozed off not too long after that, and awoke again at sunrise. The driver’s assistant was handing out little packets of what was meant to be food. Mine contained a roll that could be used to break windowpanes, some sort of petrochemical spreadstuff, and a drink box purporting to contain pineapple juice.
I gave the breadbrick and lube a miss, and decided to concentrate on the “juice”, which tasted less like pineapple tastes and more like a well-used habitrail smells. Still, I reasoned, a little blood sugar couldn’t go amiss.
One of the curious things about these long drives was that I ate virtually nothing (apart from the “juice”), but never actually felt hungry. Most likely, I wasn’t actually consuming enough energy for my body to notice, given that my days were spent staring out the window, reading, taking the odd picture, dozing off, waking up again, shuffling around a bit outside when we were able to get out of the bus for a few minutes, sitting down again, staring out the window some more, taking more pictures until my memory cards and both batteries were thoroughly exhausted, and dozing off again. Not exactly strenuous.
About three days after my arrival in Santiago, around midnight, however, my body apparently conducted some sort of internal audit. It has come to my attention…can this possibly be correct?…that you didn’t fucking feed me for three days. Suddenly, although I had actually eaten quite well in the days since my arrival, including that day, I was so gripped by hunger pangs that I felt as if I were about to collapse. The thing about Recoleta, especially the part of Recoleta I was staying in, is that the district pretty much closes for the night at around 10 PM. By the time my hunger attack kicked in, there was literally nothing – not even a pizza delivery service – open. Out of sheer desperation, I got a bit of watermelon – I have never liked watermelon, with its mothballish texture and syrupy flavour – out of the fridge just to have something in my stomach, and tried to console myself by spending the night researching the best pizza in Santiago in order to treat myself the next day.
Another thing about these long journeys is that it becomes very difficult to maintain one’s sense of time and chronology. The pace of life is so slow and repetitive, with no real need to know what time it is, that things can start to run together. For example, I can’t for the life of me say for certain when we arrived in Iquique (though I remember the event itself very well). I know that the sun was either just rising or setting, and that we crossed into the region in which Iquique is located after nightfall, indicating that our arrival in Iquique must have occurred sometime in the morning (since otherwise the entire chronology would make no sense: if we had arrived in Iquique the same night as the customs inspection, it would have been dark, which it wasn’t, and had we reached Iquique the next evening, there is no way we could have been in Santiago until two days after leaving Arica, when I know for certain that it was the day after our departure).
In any event, at some point, I glimpsed a town rather a bit larger than the ones we had been seeing. We passed a small flower garden and hill flanked by three flags and a large painted stone plaque reading COMUNA ALTO HOSPICIO. Alto Hospicio is a town just north of Iquique, one of the few major cities this far north.
There are few sights more striking in the Atacama Desert than the northern approach to Iquique on Ruta 5. The altitudes in most parts of the inland desert are quite high, so high as to be literally dizzying due to the thinner air. As such, you approach Iquique more or less from the height of a passenger jet just coming in for landing, via a road etched into what looks like a mountainous pyramid of sand. From this vantage point (provided that you are facing westward), you see the entire city of 226,000 people laid out before you in miniature, and just beyond it, the Pacific Ocean, fading into congruence with the sky on some impossibly distant horizon. If the sun is just rising (or setting), a warm glow is cast over the entire city, causing it to radiate golden light, reflected in a trail in the ocean that must be hundreds of miles long. And after hour after hour of soil dried and cracked by millennia of unyielding sunlight and heat, it felt like a glimpse of paradise.
The landmines – that was certainly a pleasant surprise upon entering the country – didn’t get me, but the road construction nearly did when I ventured out of the hotel the night of my arrival in search of food, and discovered that the pavement abruptly ended – without warning – on the other side of the intersection I had just crossed, leaving me to run through four lanes in order to get to the side of Avenida Santa María that featured someplace to walk and, hopefully, to eat. I did much better on the former score than the latter.
Because it is two hours later on the Chilean side of the border than on the Peruvian side, it was already after 6 PM when at last we pulled into Arica’s international passenger terminal.
Arica is Chile’s northernmost city, but not the northernmost populated area, a title that goes to Visviri, a tiny desert hamlet on the three-way border between Chile, Perú, and Bolivia. It is a fair-sized city, with approximately 260,000 inhabitants, and boasts one of the most pleasant climates in the country. With temperatures ranging between 15° and 25°C year-round, it is affectionately known as the City of the Eternal Spring. It is bordered on three sides by the Atacama Desert, and on one by the PacificOcean. The proximity of a large body of water, as you can surely imagine, was a welcome change after seeing little other than sand for twenty-four hours.
Like its Peruvian counterpart,Tacna, Arica is profoundly economically depressed. Because it is convenient to pretty much nowhere – even the other major desert cities are roughly 1000 km away – the major shipping routes do not bring much business to its port, preferring the ports of Iquique (12 hours to the south, in the shadow of an epic sand dune) and Valparaíso (in central Chile). It is over 2000 km away from the capital in Santiago, which, in a state as militantly centralised as Chile, means that the government only come calling if they want something. The upshot of all this an official unemployment rate of around 25%.
When during my research I realised what a monumentally long trip I had in store for me, I decided the most sensible thing would be to break it up into two legs:Lima-Arica and Arica-Santiago. I would spend a night in the City of the Eternal Spring (a name that instantly endeared the place to me), sleep in a proper bed, take a leisurely shower, change into clothes that had not spent 24 straight hours clinging to me, and go out on the town for a nice dinner out. Then, refreshed, I would sit down in the next bus, and arrive, greeted by friends, in Santiago a little over thirty hours later.
I had scouted out several pleasant-looking, inexpensive hostels in Arica during my online research. All promised free wifi, a convenient location, and included photos of lush, king-sized beds in airy rooms. Unaccountably, I failed to make a note of any of these places, and couldn’t remember the name of any one of them upon my arrival.
Fortunately in a sense, I was so comprehensively knackered upon my arrival in Arica that I no longer cared. All I wanted was someplace to lay down my luggage, wash off the dirt I had caked on me during the trip, check my e-mail and let people know where I was headed next, and some kind of flat surface to collapse on. Above all, I did not want to walk even another yard with all this crap on my shoulders.
As it turned out, there was a row of hostels directly opposite the bus terminal on Avenida Diego Portales.
There is scarcely a city, town, or village in Chile without at least one street commemorating Diego Portales. He earned the undying admiration of the Chilean ruling class two hundred years ago when he successfully subverted the country’s first constitutional convention, which was threatening to become too democratic, with a combination of violence and treachery.
Following Chile’s independence from Spain in 1810, the country was ruled for years by General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, another ubiquitous street name, who had declared himself the “Supreme Leader of the Nation”. This was, however, not at all what most people had understood “freedom from Spain” to mean. When fellow street name regular Manuel Rodríguez suggested that it might be an idea to have actual elections, O’Higgins had him wacked.
Before being murdered, Rodríguez uttered the words “Éste es el pago de Chile” (These are the wages of Chile.), a phrase that has become immortal as an expression of the bad ends met by those who actually try to do right by the Chilean people.
The entire country erupted in rebellion to get rid of “Liberator” O’Higgins, and eventually succeeded in kicking him out. This is depicted in orthodox iconography as a stately affair in which the great Liberator decides before a grateful nation that it is time to make way for new leadership. In reality, however, O’Higgins clung to power to the bitter end, and only stepped down in a hastily arranged ceremony when it was clear that the alternative was to be run out of town by pitchfork-wielding villagers.
A similar tack was taken by another self-appointed “Supreme Leader of the Nation”, Augusto Pinochet. After a decade of escalating protest and resistance to his dictatorship, when even his CIA handlers had grown sick of him, he allowed the population to vote on whether to keep him as dictator. When the majority voted to send him packing, he arranged a ceremonial departure from the presidential palace under the slogan Misión cumplida (“Mission Accomplished”), which sounds a bit more dignified than “OK, OK! I’ll leave already!”
After O’Higgins left office, there began a lengthy process of drafting a constitution Outside of Santiago, where the artisans, fishermen, and farmers who were the backbone of the country’s economy lived, people had a long tradition of local self-government through assemblies in which all citizens could participate in decision-making. Unsurprisingly, they hoped to create a constitution in that tradition. In Santiago, home to the merchants and bankers who spent their days finding ways to make money off of the work done everywhere else without actually doing any themselves, the prospect of letting their golden goose make its own decisions was not well received. Under the leadership of Diego Portales, they sought a highly centralised structure that would keep the important decisions in their neighbourhood, if not directly in their salons.
Portales and colleagues arranged to have the constitutional assembly held in Santiago, their home ground. The representatives of the rest of the country – who were directly accountable to those who had elected them and could be recalled at any time – were forced to travel a long way to take part in the debates (and considering how long the bus ride is, just imagine what it must have been like on horseback!). Once there, they were subjected to an unremitting campaign of harassment by the Portales mob, who ensured that they had no decent places to stay, ridiculed and defamed them in the press, and disrupted the deliberations in hopes of controlling the process. Even so, it did not appear that they would get what they wanted.
Eventually, they induced a segment of the army, under General Prieto, to mutiny against their commander, General Freire, who sided with the democratic aspirations of the people. Freire’s forces, with overwhelming popular support, quickly had Portales and Prieto on the brink of defeat. Prieto’s reaction was to request an audience with Freire, in Prieto’s camp, to negotiate a surrender. Trusting that Prieto would not abuse the right of surrender, Freire came unarmed. Prieto’s men ambushed him and his party, and launched surprise attacks on his forces.
In the end, Prieto was able to fight to a draw. In the negotiations, he and Freire agreed to mutual disarmament. Demonstrating a less than impressive learning curve, Freire had his troops give up their arms first. Prieto and his men kept theirs.
While I can cite no source in support of this, I have a feeling that this may have been the origin not only of Chile’s political malaise, but of the typical Chilean expression huevón (pronounced we-ON), which means “dickhead”.
And that is how the street I now surveyed got its name. There is a habit of this in Chile. Being a treasonous, murdering bastard who subverts democracy in defence of the interests of the moneyed oligarchy is much more likely to get you a street name than being someone who defends democracy against such people. Today, no street remembers General Carlos Prats González, murdered by Pinochet for his opposition to the coup that brought him to power, and only a few small side streets (not one of them is in Santiago) remember General René Schneider, who was murdered by the CIA-financed coup plotters in order to prevent Salvador Allende taking office at all. Col Roberto Souper, however, who led a disastrously failed coup attempt against Allende, has a street in one of Santiago’s nicest neighbourhoods named after him. Éste es el pago de Chile.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I should note that this is hardly a specifically Chilean phenomenon. The US is full of streets commemorating Woodrow Wilson, but how many streets celebrate Eugene V. Debs, whom Wilson sent to prison for a decade for making an anti-war speech during his presidential campaign? Or Emma Goldman, who was run out of the country during Wilson’s violent crackdown on the labour movement? How many streets remember the victims of Chicago’s Haymarket Massacre, in which police opened fire on workers striking for the eight-hour work day? Is there even a single street commemorating the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, in which soldiers machine-gunned striking miners and their families whilst they slept? If anything, the difference between the US and Chile is that, in Chile, ordinary people are much more likely to remember these names, even if those who name streets do not.
As much as I would like to be able to claim that these were my first musings upon seeing the name of the street I stood in, that would be an utter lie. My thoughts, to the extent that they were articulate enough to merit the name, were something more along the lines of: Fuck, heavy. Back hurts. Arse hurts. Arms hurt. Tired. Need sleep. Need to eat. Need to eat sleep. Shit, am becoming incoherent. V., v. bad!
Something needed to be done.
With these thoughts firmly in mind, I slogged my way through the front door of the Rocca Luna hostel diagonally opposite the bus terminal. I had settled on this place because it was five minutes’ walk from the bus station, appeared relatively well-maintained, and advertised free wifi.
A man in his mid-50s with a big black moustache welcomed me with a smile.
“Have you got any rooms free?”
“Indeed we do. How long do you plan on staying?”
“Just one night.”
“That will be 6,000 pesos,” he replied.
I handed him the money and my passport. He filled out some forms, asked for my signature, and gave me my room key.
At the time, I had not yet worked out a shortcut to convert between US dollars and Chilean pesos, so I was only aware that this was a very affordable price indeed. I since worked out that one can reliably approximate the dollar value of an amount denominated in Chilean pesos by taking off three noughts and multiplying by two. 6,000 pesos, for example, works out to roughly 12 dollars. 100,000 pesos is approximately 200 dollars, and 1 million pesos is about 2,000 dollars. And so on.
Rocca Luna was a decidedly basic establishment. My room, which was on the top end of a long and narrow staircase, was just large enough to accommodate the bed and my luggage. The bed featured a foam-rubber mattress about three feet wide, and had a profound sense of history. A window opened up into the open-air corridor. The light flickered when I plugged in my computer.
But I didn’t give a rat’s. The shower was clean. The water was hot. The bed was…a decent approximation, and the employees were lovely (I didn’t have to carry that damn suitcase up the stairs). And that was really all I was asking for from life at that particular moment.
That having been said, had someone shown up and offered me a free suite with a king-size bed, 1100-count cotton sheets, an obscenely large stack of pillows, an ocean view, a complimentary bottle of Bordeaux, and a bathtub deep enough to swim in, I would most assuredly not have said “no” (especially if a nice, fluffy bathrobe were included).
 I am indebted for this narrative in large part to the concise and engaging account of Chilean constitutional history found in En nombre del poder popular constituyente (In the Name of the People’s Constituent Power) by the eminent Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar.
Los pueblos americanos
se sienten acongojados
porque los gobernadores
los tienen tan separados.
¿Cuándo será ese cuando,
que la América sea
solo un pilar?
Solo un pilar, ay sí,
y una bandera.
Que terminen las bullas
en la frontera.
¡Por un puña’o ’e tierra
no quiero guerra!
The peoples of America
because their governments
keep them separated.
When will the day come,
that America will be
a single pillar?
A single pillar yes,
and a single banner,
to put an end to the noise
on the borders.
Don’t go starting wars
over a handful of land!
-Violeta Parra, Los pueblos americanos
I’ve never really been one for tourism. Brief visits of no more than a few days have always left me quite unsatisfied, as I must invariably move on just as I am finally beginning to settle in. Nor have I ever been a fan of the standard guided tour, in which one is whisked from place to place in the less-than-thrilling company of the sort of foreign holidaymakers who are unlikely to be all that sorely missed in their countries of origin, and who distinguish themselves either by their overall sense of superiority to everyone and everything they encounter in the country they are visiting (“Oh, we’ve got one just like that in Peoria/Parramatta/Slough, but ours is much nicer.”; “Have your people come to Jesus yet?”) or by running commentary that makes the most asinine thing you’ve ever heard seem like a flight of erudition by comparison (“Look, honey, they’ve got BMWs in Germany, too!”).
Even apart from the diverse collection of ignorant assholes with whom one generally ends up taking these tours, their structure leaves much to be desired. These tours are generally based on some tourism board’s ideas about what visitors want to (or ought to) see, meaning that the really interesting things only make it onto the itinerary by pure happenstance, if at all, and even then, are mentioned only in passing. Any discussion of the history of the place is sanitised for your protection and that of the local élites.
As unenlightening as these tours generally are if you know little or nothing about a place, they are often positivbely grating if you do happen to know a thing or two about the country and its history, as they are usually guided by students or others looking to earn some extra money, and who often know little more than what is written on their note cards. I do not hold it against them that they aren’t “distinguished area experts” – no one would expect a tour guide to have done a dissertation on what they are showing people – but it does mean that the experience is often rather short of what I am looking for.
I should note at this point that I am writing as someone who has, herself, had some experience on the other end of the tour bus PA system. Years ago, I did a brief stint as a Japanese-language interpreter and tour guide for a visiting Japanese delegation in Cincinnati. I know of what I speak.
Tourism, in sum, just doesn’t do it for me. When I travel to a new place, I’m looking for something more that you can get in four hours driving around town in a bus full of people you travelled thousands of kilometres to get away from, listening to someone narrate who likely has a great breadth and depth of knowledge on many subjects – just not the one they’re being paid to tell you about.
What am I looking for? Put simply, what I like to do in a new place is to settle in. I don’t just want to remember an endless succession of statues of wankers on horseback, all of which look more or less alike. I want to have an idea of what life is like. I want to know how to navigate the public transit system, where I can have a leisurely cup of coffee and write without the employees politely, but insistently suggesting that I might want to piss off. I want to know where the good produce is, what the sounds of the streets are like, who lives in what neighbourhoods, where the best bookshops are, where one can get a quick but tasty snack, and what one customarily eats as a quick but tasty snack. I like to start to see familiar faces and become one myself. I like to have enough of a sense of the place that I can estimate taxi fares, and know the streets and alleys well enough that I can at least sometimes give directions rather than constantly asking for them. I want to know which are the good newspapers and which are at best useful for lining drawers. I want to establish a routine, and have places that are mycustomary pubs, bookshops, markets, and restaurants.
Put simply: I don’t just want to have a look at life in a place; I want to become part of it.
Plus, if I’m going to travel a long way to visit a new place, it would seem a terrible waste to leave again after just a week or two. As such, I tend to arrange for stays of at least a month when I travel, enough to recover from the trip and actually make myself comfortable before it’s time to go again.
For my trip to Perú and Chile, I had allotted myself six weeks. In that time, I planned on getting my teeth sorted, recovering from getting my teeth sorted, making the acquaintance of Santiago and spending time with all my friends there, and travelling the rest of the substantial length of Chile, all the way down to the far south, where Antarctica is substantially closer than the capital.
An ambitious plan, to be sure. In fact, it was a plan I had been dreaming of realising for many years.
Thus, I felt no small sense of euphoria as the colectivero turned the key in the ignition after the immigration/customs checkpoint at Chacalluta, and we put the first mils of Chilean soil (or rather, Chilean sand) behind us.
Everything I had read whilst planning this epic land journey from Lima to Santiago advised against crossing the
border on buses. This apparently guaranteed that one would be subjected to a thorough going-over at Chilean customs, as drug smugglers were known to prefer buses (in addition to the fact that crossing into Chile by bus, by definition, means that one must be processed along with about a hundred others, significantly prolonging the procedure).
Whilst looking at Tacna and Arica on Google Maps, I had discovered that there was a passenger railway line between the two cities, one of a very few international passenger rail connections in Latin America. This seemed a lovely way to make the crossing; I love rail travel, and the price – roughly USD 1.00 for a one-way ticket – certainly sounded good. Chilean friends familiar with the border, however, strongly advised against it, for the same reason cited by the online guides for not taking the bus. The general consensus was that I should cross the border in a colectivo.
Colectivos are something of an intermediate step between buses and taxis. They are individually operated passenger cars that do not require reservations; however, rather than having the car to yourself, you share it with as many people as can fit into the vehicle. In determining the maximum occupancy of a colectivo, little attention is paid to niceties such as the number of people the car is actually designed to seat. The maximum occupancy of a colectivo is equal to the number of people you can cram in and still get the doors to shut.
The last time I had shared a compact car with this many people was in the mid-1990s, when I was living in the German town of Herzogenaurach, where the standard Friday-night amusement of the local youths was to see how many people they could pile into a tiny Opel, and drive to nearby Erlangen. I was seated on the far edge of the front passenger seat, 75% of which was taken up by the arse of the gentleman next to me.
At least the drive was not terribly long. Not counting the stops first at the Peruvian Santa Rosa border station, followed by a longer stop at Chile’s Chacalluta border station, lasted about 45 minutes. The fare for this 45-minute, cross-border journey was 25 soles, or roughly eight dollars.
This was, at any rate, the price everyone else had paid. I had ended up paying a fair bit more, thanks to the enterprising citizen I had met after exiting the bus terminal in Tacna. He had noticed me standing around, smoking a cigarette and trying to shake off the daze of having just spent twenty hours cooped up in a bus and now finding myself in a new city, bombarded by the intense sunlight after having spent an extended period behind tinted windows.
“Looking for something?” he asked me.
“Yes, actually”, I replied, still dazed, “I need to find a colectivo to Arica.”
“That would be the international terminal, just down the street”, he explained. “Follow me.”
I thanked him with a smile, and then groaned, as I loaded down my shoulders with my photo kit bag (containing multiple lenses weighting about one pound each, the camera body, which weight about the same, and my laptop, which weighed about ten pounds), and my purse (containing about fifteen pounds of reading material), and tilted over my sixty-pound suitcase in order to get underway.
The international terminal was just two blocks away. My volunteer guide escorted me over to a lonely ticket office off in the corner of the terminal, and had a few words with the woman on the other side of the desk, as I continued my unsuccessful attempts to clear my head. After a minute, they summoned me to the desk. My companion showed me a handwritten itemisation of the fare, which came to 25 soles, and added:
“You’ll also need 20 US dollars for the border.”
This surprised me a bit, as I could not remember anything about a fee in all of the research I had done on this border crossing. However, I was too dazed and exhausted to question it.
“I haven’t got any cash on me,” I explained.
“There’s a cash point right in the building,” he replied. “Just down that way.”
We walked over to the ATM, where I discovered that the only way to take out 25 soles was to take out 50 soles (about USD 17). I did this, and then withdrew the 20 dollars as well. Virtually all Peruvian ATMs dispense both Peruvian soles and US dollars. Upon our return to the ticket desk, he asked me to hand the money to him in order to settle up with the colectivero. Assuming that he was actually affiliated with this colectivero, I handed him the money. The woman at the desk handed me various customs forms to fill out. I completed these, and the driver showed up a few minutes later to take me down to the waiting colectivo.
As the colectivero loaded my bags into the car, it occurred to me to ask: “When do you think I could get my change? I should be getting back 25 soles since I paid with a fifty.”
Perplexed, he responded: “I don’t owe you any change.”
“But I gave the guy a fifty and the fare’s only twenty-five.”
“I reckon he’s the one who’s got your change, then,” the colectivero replied wryly.
I had, in effect, paid nearly forty dollars for an eight-dollar colectivo ride.
I was rather less than chuffed to discover that I had been so thoroughly had, but fortunately it was not all that much money. Two years before, in Barcelona, I had been taken for my laptop and equipment, worth rather more than USD 1500. This little border scam I could laugh off. Whenever I told this story in Chile, which I did quite often, I always described this as “my modest contribution to Tacna’s informal sector”, evoking knowing laughter from my friends.
The economically depressed border town of Tacna has a reputation in Chile for being a den of thieves. Interestingly, the whole of Chile is held in similar esteem in Perú.
The con job in Tacna would not be allowed to cloud the most important moment of the day: I was in Chile! At last, after years of dreaming of and planning this trip, I had arrived!
As we proceeded south to Arica on the northernmost section of Ruta 5, two signs broke up the desert landscape:
FOR A CHILE WITHOUT LANDMINES
Right! I thought, clearly I’ve still got the odd hurdle to clear.